Undergraduate Writing Assignments on the Nature of Science using the NSF-funded "The Story Behind the Science"
Scientifically literate citizens are able to actively participate and make decisions in the discourse of science in a global society dealing with scientific issues such as climate change because they have sufficient understanding of the concepts and the nature of science (NOS)—and how to communicate that knowledge in writing. However, understandings of the NOS and science communication skills are lacking in many university students, both science majors and non-science majors, leading to misconceptions that create barriers to scientific literacy. Writing to Learn (WTL) is an effective pedagogical solution because it aligns with attributes of successful learning such as feedback and engagement, provides students with opportunities for higher order thinking skills like synthesis and analysis, and encourages students to emulate the language processes of building scientific knowledge. The NSF-funded website, "The Story Behind the Science" (TSBTS) provides material to help students learn about the NOS through individual "stories" of scientific problems and advances in the natural sciences, including geology. I developed a series of WTL activities using TSBTS geology stories and implemented them in introductory geology courses for both geology majors and education majors to improve students' scientific communication skills and NOS literacy. These assignments include low-stakes writing, an argumentative paper, and structured peer review. I performed evaluations of pedagogical effectiveness of these assignments by comparing NOS literacy exhibited in student writing early in the semester with that exhibited in later writing. Results indicate that engaging students in the study of science through language arts—critical reading of and writing about the NOS—produces measurable improvements in NOS scientific literacy. I will present detailed results of these assessments, describe each assignment and its theoretical underpinnings in science education research and composition studies, and discuss lessons learned and best practices for instituting writing assignments using TSBTS in geology classrooms.