Image: Skillet Clubtail dragonfly, by David Marvin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
This year in my 3rd-year Entomology course, we introduced a new student assignment: to write a blog post about an insect of conservation concern in Canada. (I say “we”, because most of the credit goes to my TA and PhD student Chandra Moffat. I’ll link to some of the resulting posts below; but first, a few thoughts.
We instituted a blogging assignment because we hoped it might address some different skills, and thus different kinds of learning, compared with the more traditional mini-papers I’d assigned in the past. We wanted to let students (1) write in a different style, and with a more interesting audience, than they usually do; (2) think and write about insect conservation, which we otherwise don’t address much but is interesting and important; and (3) see consequences of their work not just for a grade, but (for those who were willing) for real-world science communication.
This use of social media in teaching is a first for me (and yes, you’re allowed to roll your eyes at what a stick-in-the-mud I’ve been). If you’re inexperienced too, this post by Chris Buddle provides some very useful advice. Chandra and I were extremely happy with the results, for two reasons. First, the students were more engaged with this assignment than with any other. Second, their writing was better – much better. I suspect that’s partly the engagement, but there might be something else at play too. We seem to teach students that there’s a lot to worry about in scientific (journal-paper) writing, which we ask them to emulate in lab reports and papers. This gets them writing as if they’re balanced on a high wire, terrified of putting a foot wrong, and therefore doing things that seem to them to emulate the literature: passive voice, turgid sentences, reams of detail. Loosening the (perceived) constraints of the scientific-writing genre seems to have let them write more freely and naturally, and as a result, better. Our technical literature might well benefit from a similar relaxation, and this exercise has led me to wonder if that’s another reason we should encourage scientific writers to throw off the shackles a little and write with at least glints of humour and humanity.
We gave our students the choice of having their blog posts seen only by their classmates, or releasing them publicly. Five of thirteen chose to make their work public. Those that did not (there were no consequences for making that decision) gave two reasons. Some were reluctant to contact copyright-holders of images for permission to use them publicly. Others simply felt a bit intimidated by the notion of worldwide availability of their work. Interestingly, there was no correlation between quality of the work and student willingness to go public with it!
I’m grateful to Sean McCann and the Entomological Society of Canada for hosting my students’ posts on the ESC blog. The five took different writing approaches, but all are great. Please click through to check them out:
- The five-spotted bogus yucca moth, by Isaac MacLean
- The sand-verbena moth, by Lisa Jørgensen
- The skillet clubtail dragonfly, by Melody McLean
- The cuckoo gypsy bumblebee, by Zach DeLong
- The cobblestone tiger beetle, by Mischa Giasson
UPDATE: here’s the assignment and rubric as distributed, for anyone who would like to try this themselves.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) January 29, 2016