A Toast to a Scientist - Celebrating Identity and Accomplishments

Laura Guertin, Penn State Brandywine
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Initial Publication Date: March 12, 2021


To bring attention to a more inclusive population of scientists and to help students develop their own science identity, students are assigned to write a speech that could be given as a "toast" at an event honoring that scientist. The toast, from the viewpoint of an individual identified by the instructor or as the student themself, can be completed as an individual or group project and submitted as text or audio.

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This assignment was originally developed for and implemented in an introductory-level historical geology course for non-STEM majors that served as an introduction to the origin and evolution of life on Earth from the perspective of geologic time and the fossil record. There are no prerequisites for the historical geology course, and the course satisfies the university's general education requirement for natural sciences. The general education learning objectives include effective communication, critical and analytical thinking, integrative thinking, and social responsibility and ethical reasoning. This assignment has been used in both honors and non-honors sections of the historical geology course.

Note that this assignment is appropriate for and can be scaled to any geoscience course that highlights scientists and science identity.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

There are no prerequisites for the course and no areas of mastery expected of students before beginning the assignment. The assignment is designed for first-year university students with no prior coursework in Earth science or instruction in library/research skills or narrative writing/storytelling. The students in the honors section of historical geology were required to audio record their toast, but no prior experience with audio hardware or software was expected.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is scaffolded through the first month of the semester, involving instruction in information search strategies and source evaluation, and writing as narrative storytelling. Students learn the science content and narrative writing from the geoscience instructor, and information literacy from a reference and instruction librarian. For the honors section, digital literacy and training is provided by the emerging technology staff.

As historical geology at this institution is taught in the spring semester, the assignment is designed as A Toast to Charles Darwin! and due on his birthday, February 12. Any scientist can be selected for the toast and the assignment deadline does not have to tie into a specific date such as a birthday. Other celebration days to consider may include World Water Day (March 22), Earth Day (April 22), Earth Science Week (October), Geography Awareness Week (November), Black History Month (February), Women's History Month (March), etc.

The assignment can be scaled to be implemented during half a semester or longer, depending upon how much material students are asked to research and share about their scientist. As presented in this activity, the toast serves as an introduction for students to library services, information literacy, and additional background information on a specific scientist.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Many biographies and profiles of scientists online do not include representation of diverse individuals (gender, age, career stage, ethnicity, etc.). Students select or are assigned a scientist to learn more about and to construct an honorary speech based upon that scientist's personal and/or professional accomplishments. This exercise goes beyond the Scientist Spotlight biographies in allowing a student to supplement their research skill development with a creative output. In addition, the development of a toast to a scientist can aid students in developing a science identity (see SAGE 2YC page, Develop Students' Science Identity).

Although this example for a historical geology course specifically focused on Charles Darwin and the connection to Darwin Day, to aid in breaking the common stereotypes held by students as to who does science, an instructor can select a non-stereotypical living or deceased scientist for students to investigate.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

For the information literacy piece of the assignment, the goals for students include:

  • To learn effective online search strategies, including the utilization of the university library databases
  • To learn how to evaluate online sources for currency, reliability, authority, and purpose/point of view
  • To learn how to locate the required information from online sources for citations

For the narrative piece of the assignment, the goals for the students include:

  • Writing skills development - To learn how to write a biography focusing on the personal and/or professional accomplishments in a storytelling format (in this case, in the form of a toast) for listeners
  • Critical thinking and research skills - To learn how to evaluate sources and how to critically analyze existing podcasts to determine how well a podcast covers the topic, to assess what information is missing, and to evaluate to what extent a podcast is effective in accomplishing its objectives
  • Collaboration – If assigned as a group exercise, to learn how to collaborate with a community peers in the development of science content

Other skills goals for this activity

Instructors have the option of requiring students to record their toast to a scientist. An audio recording provides students a creative outlet for their work and can develop their digital literacy skills, such as:

  • Media and information literacy - To learn how information is both produced and consumed, and to reflect on available sources and their appropriate usage
  • Listening skills - To learn how to evaluate existing audio files to determine how well an audio narrative covers the topic, engages a listener of the target population, and to evaluate to what extent an audio recording is effective in accomplishing its objectives
  • Technical skills – To learn how to use Audacity or GarageBand (or any audio recording program) to generate an engaging audio narrative, as audio training is growing in both educational and corporate settings

Description and Teaching Materials

This is a general overview of the assignment given in an honors historical geology course in a spring semester. Students were required to complete the assignment in the first month of the semester, and the toast was to be written for Charles Darwin. The twist to this assignment is that each student enrolled in the course was provided a different identity of someone that featured prominently in Darwin's life, and the toast needed to be written from that person's perspective. By having students author a toast representing a different person, this cut down on academic integrity violations as students did not benefit from sharing their work from each other while completing the assignment. By the assignment deadline, students submitted a script with references along with the audio file.

A Toast to Charles Darwin!

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England. The anniversary of his birthday is marked by celebrations across the globe recognizing his accomplishments and controversies around his ideas. The residents of Shrewsbury mark Darwin's birthday each year with a toast - and we will do the same!

Now the toast you are going to compose will be a little different than the Shrewsbury version. Your toast should honor Darwin's life work and continuing influence in the world of science. But here is a little twist... you are not writing the toast as yourself. You are writing the toast as if you were someone that featured prominently in Darwin's life. As you are toasting Darwin as a specific person, refer to yourself and Darwin in the past tense.

Keep the following questions in mind as you write your toast:

  • Who was Darwin? Prepare a brief biography.
  • What were Darwin's fundamental ideas?
  • How did your "character" agree or clash with Darwin's ideas? What influence did your person have on his work? And how do they know each other (or did their paths ever physically cross)?
  • What is the impact of Darwin's work on today's ideas and current research?

You will write a paper with your toast, approximately three pages in length, complete with in-text citations and an APA-formatted reference list. I know that none of you are professional toast-writers, so I won't be looking for style and structure, rhyme and verse, etc. I'm looking for content - the science, the information you present and how you back up that information.

For this assignment, the identities students were assigned included Robert Darwin (Darwin's father), Erasmus Alvey Darwin (brother), Emma Wedgwood ​(Charles Darwin's wife), Captain Robert FitzRoy (HMS Beagle), Adam Sedgwick (geologist), John Stevens Henslow (botanist), Charles Lyell, Thomas Henry Huxley, Richard Owen, Thomas Malthus, and others.

For the sections that were required to complete an audio recording of their toast, technical training was provided by a Media Commons trainer (staff at the University) during a class period. Students were introduced to recording facilities available on campus and microphones available for check-out from the campus library. Students were allowed to use any software they were most comfortable with but were shown the free audio software available through the university and online tutorials, as well as the technology help line for assistance. Part of the instruction included an overview of the Creative Commons licenses and a list of sources that could be used as sound effects to ensure there were no copyright violations in the audio recordings.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The students expressed a lack of experience listening to a toast, and needed several examples provided and reviewed as a class. Examples included ones found in YouTube from Toastmasters International (How to Give a Toast) and the TEDx Talk (How to Give a Great Toast).

Faculty may want to consider adding the campus writing center as part of the assignment, having a group peer review or review by individual tutor of the toast before students submit.

For faculty that allow students to select the scientist for whom they are writing the toast, faculty can encourage students to review the biographies and profiles of diverse and underrepresented scientists already posted online at: SACNAS Biography Project (Chicano/Hispanic and Native American Scientists), Identify with a [female] Scientist through PROGRESS (Promoting Geoscience Research, Education & Success), 500 Queer Scientists, Women in Ocean Science and The Oceanography Society Special Issues for Women in Oceanography (2005 and 2014), A Day in the GeoLife series from Rock-Head Sciences, Earth Science Women's Network Spotlights, and Black in Geoscience Stories.

If students are required to record their toast:

  • If a student has a speech impediment (stutters, is mute, etc.), they may not feel comfortable or be able to record their voice. In this case, the instructor has allowed students to perform all the steps up to the script/speech writing, have someone else record their voice reading the rally speech, then the student in my class is required to do the final editing. Permission is always obtained in writing from the student that does the speaking (typically via email to the instructor).
  • For students whose first language is not English, they may feel more comfortable recording in their own language. The instructor can require the script be turned in typed in English but allow the student to record the audio in another language. This has yielded interesting class discussions when the file is played back in the classroom, noting how pace and emphasis varies between languages.
  • At the conclusion of the assignment, students reported a sense of pride and accomplishment in completing their toast to a scientist. The sharing of the audio files has been completed differently in different semesters - either as one shared listening session during a class period (works well for small class sizes) or through students listening to audio files posted in the course management system and commenting on the submissions on a discussion board. For this exercise, audio files were never shared beyond their instructor and fellow students enrolled in the course.


A grading outline is provided to students at the same time the assignment is given. Students are told they will be scored in each category across a range of 1 to 5, with 1 not being up to college-level expectations and 5 greatly exceeding expectations. Students start with a 3 in each category and the scores are shifted up/down.

  • Brief biography of Darwin (*students tend to spend too much time/space on this part - instructors may want to place a word limit on this section)
  • A description of Darwin's fundamental ideas
  • A clear description of who you are and your connection to/impact on Darwin (*this section I count double the points of the other categories, as it requires more thinking and synthesis of information found online)
  • The impact of Darwin's work today
  • Toast is fun and creative yet accurate
  • References are reliable and of quality (*based upon instruction from librarian on information literacy)

The project counts for 10-15% of a student's final grade in the course.

References and Resources

This assignment has goals that match Scientist Spotlight exercises. To read more about different formats that an instructor can use to highlight scientists and their accomplishments, please see: