Composing Science is now available from The National Writing Project, TCPress and Amazon.
While it can be hard to have “something to say” in reference to scientific phenomena, it is harder still to organize and write a meaningful paper when you have nothing you really want to say. The structures designed to help with the exposition of an idea — a five-paragraph essay or the headings of the typical lab report—become a MadLibs of science writing as students, without a clear idea to share, seek the “right” words to fill in the template. Rhetorical structures, which may be useful in organizing ideas and helping us find the holes in our arguments, can only do so much in helping us have an argument to make in the first place. If students “cannot” write a topic sentence, it is likely that they have no topic sentence. If they do well on all but the “analysis” section of a lab report — and why report on a lab if not for the analysis? — then it is likely that they have no real analysis to share. These structures can help highlight that, but all the writing instruction, rubrics, and templates cannot give students something to say.
It is, therefore, critical that students have something to say — a hard-won idea that they are proud of, a unique insight that they developed, a representation or a piece of evidence or a way of phrasing an idea, or even a question that their investigations have helped them articulate. One job of our course is to help students have scientific ideas they want to share. That, in a nutshell, can be considered the underlying goal of lab notebooks, whiteboards, class discussions, definitions, and reading annotations. And the job of the writing assignments is to give students a place where they can say it.