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Technical Writing: The Paradox of Mere Practice

T.R. Girill Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: The Paradox of Mere Practice

Internships Alone Are Not Enough

For many years, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)
has offered summer internships for (undergraduate) science students,
including pre-service science teachers enrolled in California
State University's Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program
(singled out for praise in an editorial in Science, 336:519, May 4,
2012). When funds are available we include in-service teachers as
interns too. Always the goal is to offer the experience of authentic
research--personal and professional, intellectual and bureaucratic,
procedural and creative both. From these internships some students
gain a much more sophisticated view of (what education schools call)
"the nature of science" (NOS), including science communication.
Others not so much. Merely participating in such a research
internship turns out to be insufficient to yield the desired deeper
insights about the activities tried, the distinctions encountered,
or the significance of either for life in science and engineering.

What Research Shows

This problem--which might be called the "paradox of mere
practice"--has been the subject of several recent controlled studies.
One [H. Yacoubin and S. BouJaoude, "The effect of reflective
discussions following inquiry-based laboratory activities on
students' views of nature of science," Journal of Research in
Science Teaching, 47(10), 1229-1252 (2010)] looked at NOS-learning
outcomes for 38 grade-6 students engaged in "inquiry-based
laboratory activities" (p. 1229). The students took pre- and
post-tests and participated in semi-structured interviews.

Yacoubin and BouJaoude found that "implicit inquiry-based
instruction" alone "did NOT substantially enhance the students'
target NOS views." On the other hand, "explicit and reflective
discussions following inquiry-based laboratory activities enhanced
students' views of the target NOS aspects more than" did the
all-implicit alternative (p. 1229). From this the authors inferred
"...the importance of explicit and reflective discussions to make
the invisible aspects of scientific laboratory work visible for
students..." (p. 1232).

Another recent study took an even more relevant look at the
impact on the NOS-sophistication of science students involved in
"raw" internships. Pei-Ling Hsu, Michael van Eijck, and Wolf-
Michael Roth ["Students' representations of scientific practice
during a science internship," International Journal of Science
Education, 32(9), 1243-1266 (June 2010)] used ethnographic techniques
to track the perceptions of 13 Canadian high-school students as they
pursued environmental internships at a local university. These
students worked and talked about work with real scientists and lab
technicians, and even had these interactions videotaped in 5
60-minute segments (each) for later analysis.

Nevertheless, the authors found that the "students do NOT
appear to have developed complete representations of scientific
practice at the end of their science internships" (p. 1261).
Many ignored the multi-disciplinary cooperation and in-lab division
of labor that they had personally experienced, for example, and
their "stereotypical images" of laboratory research persisted.
Hsu, van Eijck, and Roth concluded that
...participation alone does not make salient or
thematic these invisible aspects [of research]
...students' representations of authentic
scientific practice are not just about whether
they participate in authentic science but also
is [sic] related to what students perceive as
important (p. 1263).

Externalizing One's Experience

As an institution providing internships or as a teacher
coordinating them, what can one do to overcome this missed awareness
of important NOS features? Making the key features explicit,
externalizing them with overt terms, distinctions, and comparisons,
is vital for cognitive success. Data visualization expert Edward
Tufte calls this "revealing the magic."

LLNL now has a week-long pre-internship "academy" devoted to
spelling out important aspects of laboratory life that even
in-service teachers embarking on summer internships often overlook:

* the role of teamwork and collaboration with
specialists (such as statisticians or
bioinformatics experts),
* the different roles (and tools) of physicists
and engineers on "big science" projects,
* the role of grants in sustaining or expanding
technical work, and
* 4 hours devoted to science-communication issues,
techniques, and checklists to "reveal the magic"
that enables effectively explaining research
results to managers, funders, and colleagues
worldwide (for more, see
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html ).

Studies have shown that students are often unable to improve their
technical writing, for example, simply because they have no way
to talk about it--about the goals of and constraints on the process
of designing nonfiction text. Externalizing these goals and
constraints, framing them as one more case of engineering design,
is thus a vital contribution to helping students communicate better
about science.

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