Teaching Writing to STEM Students

Last spring, I taught two courses that attracted a lot of STEM students. History of medicine always holds appeal for future doctors and my death in America course drew more aspiring engineers and chemists than it did aspiring historians. This was a very different experience for me, as I was used to having most of my students majoring in history or related fields. Working with STEM students with limited backgrounds in the humanities challenged me as a teacher and in this essay I have outlined my approach to teaching writing to STEM students.

I quickly realized that the writing requirements in STEM left students ill equipped for history courses. These students were at a disadvantage for a number of reasons. Many had not written anything other than lab reports since high school. Some conflated personal opinions with structured arguments and couldn’t construct a cogent thesis as a result. Others had issues with the fundamentals of writing, including sentence structure and grammar. And almost none of them anticipated that there would be so much writing in the courses.

A lot of STEM students are used to formulaic lab reports. Encouraging the students to think of the structure of a history paper as a “formula” (thesis first in opening paragraph, supporting evidence in subsequent paragraphs, etc.) helped them organize their papers. I know this is not an ideal approach, but it provided a workable foundation for students who were totally overwhelmed. As the students grew accustomed to the basic structure, we then talked about alternatives to make their writing more sophisticated (using a hook, etc.).

Explaining “evidence” was difficult at times. This could be an uphill battle, as some students had a hard time understanding that primary and secondary sources were necessary to illustrate their points. To remedy this, I compared their research for my class to data sets and lab results in their other classes. This helped them realize that evidence is important regardless of the field. When they embraced a broader definition of “evidence” they had an easier time processing their sources. Many of my STEM students were very good at doing research once they had an understanding of what kinds of evidence they were looking for.

I found teaching students to separate argument from opinion to be tricky because many STEM students assume that opinion was the foundation of humanities papers. One student even said to me, “This is harder than I thought. I thought I could just write down my opinion.” When students having this problem came to my office hours, I’d ask them two questions: “How do you feel about what you found in your research?” and “What do you think about what you found in your research?” I’d encourage the students to talk through the answer to both questions and usually by the end they understood the difference between having a feeling about their topic and what they thought about it. Often, students would accidentally state their thesis while answering the second question.

I assigned a style guide to my freshman seminar “Dying in nineteenth-century U.S.” and encouraged the medical history students to pick one up as well. I was particularly insistent that the STEM students use a style guide to help with sentence structure and grammar. I harped on the benefits of a style guide so often that many students starting using them to shut me up. I recommended Mary Lynn Rampolla’s A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, The Chicago Manual of Style online and Purdue OWL.

Once they had the basics down, I found that I spent a lot of time trying to get them to relax and apply the things they learned. Many worried that not writing a paper since high school meant they were doomed to failure. Others worried that they were not improving fast enough to secure a good grade. Part of this came from the early-semester panic about having to write papers in the first place. Many assumed that these courses would be like their high school history classes in which they rarely, if ever, wrote papers. Once students became confident that they were now equipped with the tools necessary for success, their fear dissipated and the quality of their work improved.

Overall, I found working with STEM students to be very rewarding. It gave me the opportunity to think about the basics of writing in history – something I rarely get to do when working on my own scholarship. More importantly, I got to help students think and write critically; a skill they will use throughout their college career and beyond. Even if they never take another history course, they now have the foundations to write in a field outside of STEM.

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