The art of writing about science
From record-breaking snowfall on the East Coast to major medical breakthroughs, science and technology related issues fill today’s headlines.
The ability to translate scientific concepts into terms the public can understand is increasingly important for garnering financial support, as well as general goodwill, but even highly skilled scientists often lack the training needed to effectively describe their work to people outside their fields.
To address this need, the Department of English designed the Professional Science and Technology Writing certificate. The innovative program, now in its third year, provides focused training for people who write about science and technology to help them communicate their ideas better.
Designed for working professionals as well as undergraduates in any major, the 15-credit-hour program can be completed online through WSU’s Global campus or in-person on the Pullman and Vancouver campuses.
“To fully realize the benefits of our state’s investment in science and the significant research happening at WSU, we need people who can effectively explain scientific concepts and meaning to the general public,” said Todd Butler, chair of the English department.
Providing clear and compelling information about technical and scientific topics is particularly valuable to faculty and researchers who often must seek external grants to sustain their work.
“Grant funding is very challenging to obtain and getting more challenging all the time,” said Paul Whitney, professor of psychology and CAS associate dean for research. “In the current funding environment, proposals need excellent ideas and excellent writing to have a good chance of success.”
From research to application
Even between scientists, breaking down jargon into common terms can lead to more cross-disciplinary collaboration. The same applies to potential business and industry partnerships that can lead to commercialization of research, said Brian Kraft, CAS director of business development.
“The ability to reduce a scientific discovery to a concise, accurate statement that explains its importance is critical to attracting public and business interest,” Kraft said. “This requires a relatively unique combination of technical and writing expertise.
“WSU’s certificate program provides an option for scientists and those who write about science to develop their communication skills.”
Courses cover in-depth outlining, composition, and editing for several types of documents that target specific audiences and information needs, such as research grant proposals, funding-source memos, and completion reports. The tailored learning approach allows each class member to identify a particular interest area—biology, chemistry, medicine, and environmental studies among them—and to enhance their studies with a series of three courses designed to sharpen their ability to synthesize and convey technical information.
By bringing students from diverse majors together with scientists and professionals in various fields, the classes create real-world opportunities to apply their new skills, said Katherine Ericsson, instructor of one of the three required English courses. “They learn to identify different audiences and stakeholders and the language necessary to effectively deliver their messages.”
Washington is a hub of science and technology in the Pacific Northwest, with industries like Boeing and Microsoft employing thousands and creating an “ever-increasing focus on science and technology in education and the workplace,” Ericsson said. This makes the certificate even more valuable to students still planning their careers and to others already living and working in the state, she said.