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Technical Writing: The Paradox of Mere Practice

Technical Writing: The Paradox of Mere Practice

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. 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 ). 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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