A look at Biology and Technical Writing

Sometimes our students help us forge interesting interdisciplinary collaborations; thus helping to shape our programs in new ways.  This summer, biology undergraduate Jessica Blackburn Martin used her Wake Forest Research Fellowship to explore ways that tutors in the Writing Center could help students learn to write in the sciences.RyanShireyJessicaBlackburn-700x350

The Biology Department features technical writing in its curriculum. As a biology major, Jessica had become well acquainted with these requirements.  Many of the tutors in the Writing Center have little or no exposure in biology writing, yet they are confronted with students who need help with biology papers.  Working with her mentors,  Dr. Dan Johnson, Biology Department professor, and Dr. Ryan Shirey, English Department Professor and Director of the College’s Writing Center, Jessica developed a plan for connecting the Center’s work more directly with the Biology Department’s goals for teaching technical writing.

Jessica became interested in writing last year when she began working with the University’s Communications and External Relations (CER) department. She soon realized that the way CER approached stories was very different from how she was used to writing. This led to the realization that different disciplines often have different ideas about what constitutes good writing.  To write well, one has to take into account not only disciplinary conventions, but also purpose and audience.

While working alongside tutors at the Writing Center for several months, Jessica observed how they conducted sessions with students.  From these observations, she prepared several resources to explain the purpose, style, and format of biology papers. She also arranged for Biology Department and Writing Center tutors to meet and discuss strategies for partnering to help biology students write more effectively.  Together, they designed a set of procedures that will:

  • Help science teaching assistants and writing tutors understand more clearly what each expects and can do for students, and when they should refer students for help.
  • Improve the Biology Department’s approach to teaching technical writing.
  • Serve as a model for other departments to build a similar relationship with the Writing Center.

Jessica has learned the importance of taking time to not just write and edit a paper, but to critically think about its purpose and how well she is communicating what she wants to say – a skill she is already putting to good use in class this semester.  At the same time, she helped Professors Johnson and Shirey improve their work to teach and support writing in biology.

The Wake Forest Research Fellowship Program is designed to encourage individual Wake Forest undergraduates to join their professors as junior partners on scholarly research and creative projects. These mentored projects provide invaluable opportunities for students to experience the excitement of performing innovative scholarly work.

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