Controversial scientific topics are dominating mainstream news headlines these days: climate change, evolution, vaccines, stem cell research.. the list goes on. Newsrooms portray two sides to every story, but too often these news stories are muddied with sensationalism, unclear/incomplete messaging or straight-out falsities. Given the pace at which news is consumed, it's scary to think of the damage that can be or is done by publishing subpar science news.
For these reasons, accurate science communication plays a very (very) important role in today's hyper-digitized age. There's a growing movement to train and engage science communicators in separating fact from fiction and relaying those key differences to mainstream media and lay audiences.
Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., recognized the widening gulf between communications and sciences in education was part of the problem. So in 2009, the college launched WRIT 1, a written communications course taught by STEM faculty to all first-year students. In an op-ed published by Forbes, Klawe reflects on the impetus behind WRIT 1 and interviews two Harvey Mudd professors on their experience teaching WRIT 1 as STEM professionals:
Maria Klawe: Is it odd to be a mathematics professor teaching writing?
Rachel Levy: I never imagined that as a mathematics professor I would be allowed to teach writing. But even before the college implemented WRIT 1, mathematics courses emphasized communication. Some assignments have “style points” for clear writing, and students take pride in their homework. We have a required public speaking course for all mathematics majors. Communication skills are like a superpower. When students develop these skills, they gain tools that will serve them well beyond college. I was convinced to teach WRIT 1 when a chemistry professor told me that it would improve my own writing. It has; I used to avoid writing tasks, but now I find myself writing almost every day and enjoying it.
Klawe: How is teaching writing different from teaching computer science?
Colleen Lewis: In my computer science teaching I often encourage students to use the problem solving strategy of “solve a simpler problem.” This strategy falls flat in writing—“Having trouble with your essay? Write a different one!”—not a crowd-pleasing suggestion. However, learning to communicate ideas is at the heart of learning across the disciplines. In computer science, it isn’t about hacking together a computer program; it is about communicating an algorithm that needs to be understandable to both computers and humans.