“Science is a three dimensional field”

Laura J. Olsen, Biology (large size)

Dr. Laura Olsen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, where her lab researches organelle biogenesis and degradation. She has received several awards for her teaching, including an Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship in 2001. For the last several years, Olsen has taught Writing in Biology, an Upper-Level Writing Requirement course she has developed that gives students the opportunity to analyze and produce a range of written scientific genres, both academic and professional. In Olsen’s words, students leave the course “maybe looking at things in a different way, maybe being more aware that science is a three dimensional field, rather than just the science they see in a lab.”

Olsen believes that her Writing in Biology course meets an important professional development need for her students: “You know, we have lots of students doing undergrad research. But in a way, it’s really one dimensional to just do the research—to just stand and fill tubes and do enzyme assays or something like that. But…to really know the scholarship behind it, and also the scholarship that comes from it—I really wanted to sort of flesh that out for them, whether they’re going to be doctors, or grad students, or lawyers or business people or whatever.”

Students in Olsen’s course engage in a variety of learning activities to gain a better understanding of the kinds of writing in which biologists engage. In their first assignment, students interview their lab supervisor to “find out what do they do for writing, when did they learn writing, do they like it, how do they do it, [and] what do they write.” Olsen believes this makes professional writing in the sciences more real for students:“It’s one thing for me to say to an undergrad, ‘You know, writing is really important. I do a lot of writing in my job’… It’s another thing for them then to be working in this lab with a professor or clinician and have that person also say, ‘Yeah, I had to learn how to write. I use it all the time. I use it on patient files or grant applications or manuscripts.’”

Olsen’s students also work together to critique actual faculty research posters displayed around the Department, evaluating and scoring them in order to select the best and worst posters. Not only does this improve students’ rhetorical understanding of biology posters as a genre, but it has also raised the entire Department’s awareness of poster quality: “People here, they know when this is happening. My colleagues and I’ve noticed that the posters in the building are getting better, too.”

Students in Writing about Biology have many other opportunities to analyze the audience and purpose of various scientific genres: they write evaluations of oral presentations in research seminars; write about bio-ethical issues in pharmaceutical advertisements; analyze and critique the structure of published research papers and grant proposals; and work collaboratively to present their own data graphically. The course culminates in a unit called “Writing for a Public Audience.” In this unit, Olsen says, “they have to take something from their research lab and prepare it for the public. And they choose…all semester long, it’s ‘Who’s the audience,’ right? Is the audience right now a newspaper reporter? Is the audience a grant review panel? Is the audience other scientists? Now the audience can be anything.” Students have responded to this assignment by designing everything from learning activities for an introductory biology course to bilingual public health brochures.

Olsen credits the Sweetland Writing Center Fellows Program and the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT) with giving her the tools and the confidence to develop a writing course, even though doing so was initially outside of her “comfort zone.” In her words, Sweetland faculty “gave me the courage to try to do a class like this, because it’s not anything taught in my department.” Although she initially found the language of writing instruction “pretty intimidating,” she says that talking with experts in Sweetland helped her “try something new in [her] own teaching.”

Olsen turned to university resources for help with one of her greatest areas of uncertainty: how to grade writing. “CRLT ran a workshop on grading writing… That was a really good workshop. They gave us ideas, they gave us different criteria to use, metrics to use, and they said the more metrics you give them, the better it is. So my students know exactly what they’re getting graded on.” In addition to making her grading more systematic, explicit grading rubrics help her students understand the specific expectations for each assignment.

“For me the class is kind of a luxury to teach,” says Olsen. “It’s fun; the students like it—I think we both like going to class, and I think that’s really helpful.” When asked what she would tell other faculty in the sciences new to teaching undergraduate writing in their disciplines, Olsen says, “It’s really worth the time. It’s not as intimidating as I’d thought—certainly it’s not as hard as I thought it was going to be.”