300-Level Physico-Chemistry Lab (Writing-Intensive)

WRITING TO LEARN AND COMMUNICATE IN CHEMISTRY


Communication is the most important thing. You could do Nobel Prize-winning work, and if you can't communicate it you aren't going to get the prize. [Students] realize that scientists have to be able to communicate. That's as important as doing the experiment "properly."--Professor Ray McDonald

The formal typewritten reports helped me to formulate my thinking and present my experiment in a professional manner.--Student

I learned how to write a scientific paper correctly. This is very helpful because I want to be a scientist.--Student

COURSE GOALS

The goal of the course is for students to learn how to do ten physical chemistry experiments and then, in the words of Professor McDonald,

to write clearly and concisely what they set out to do, what they did, and what results they got--and what they think (the results) mean in terms of the theory that they talked about at the beginning. The idea is that the experiment is always testing some theory. They have to be able to interpret the experimental results and tell me what they got--not just interpret it in their own minds, but be able to explain it to me.

WRITING ACTIVITIES

1. FORMAL REPORTS

Students are required to do two formal, typewritten reports. They receive an outline and a model report, then read a chapter on report writing. At least half of the first class is devoted to writing a report. The first experiment requires a formal report, graded by the professor. Students do the experiment, record relevant observations and data, then analyze the data using statistical techniques. They discuss results with their teaching assistants or professor, and may submit report drafts for review. They are given two weeks to turn in the first report, twice as long as the time for their other reports.

Their write-up covers the purpose of the experiment, the theory it tests, equipment and methods, data and observations, and representative calculations; it includes results in graphical or tabular form, comparison of experimental results to literature values, error analysis, and discussion and summary sections. References to literature other than textbook and lab materials are footnoted and listed in appropriate style at the end of the experiment.

Though many students submit only a final report, Dr. McDonald's grading system provides fine-grained, written feedback that is useful for subsequent papers. An ideal score is assigned for each of the eight parts of the laboratory report. A student knows what a grade of 10/20 means for the CALCULATIONS section, and knows how much that section is weighted out of a total of 85 points. The following example from a student paper illustrates the rubric for evaluation of a final report:

Hopefully this course will have prepared me for the writing of scientific articles. Writing formal reports gave the experience of presenting a chemical experiment...[and] helped me to formulate my thinking and present my experiment in a professional manner. I learned how to write a scientific paper correctly. This is very helpful because I want to be a scientist.--Student
ABSTRACT: 5/5

FORMAT: 5/5

INTRO/THEORY: 17/20

EXPERIMENT: 5/5

RESULTS: 3/5

ERROR: 18/20

DISCUSSION: 20/20

REFERENCES: 5/5

78/85

Dr. McDonald and his teaching assistant provide commentary on what is well done and could be done better. Comments such as "First talk about IDEAL and then about NON-IDEAL and why they are not ideal" and "Illustrations will help to show what you are saying" point to categories of errors and omissions that can be addressed in future reports. In the excerpt that follows, the teaching assistant adds her comments to a student's final report:

Sam, I received a copy of your rough draft from Dr. McDonald so I would know what he had advised you. I just wanted to say I'm impressed with the amount of effort and time you put into this. It really shows! Good job!


Marginal comments sometimes are illustrations that convey more effectively than words the teaching assistant's reactions to sections of a student's report. Below is an excerpt from a student's report with the TA's marginal comments:

. . . the point is that there were impurities in the cyclohexane. Both of these are consistent with the measured boiling point. Also, error is associated with anything in which numbers must be read. These parallax errors and the accuracy of the thermometer have reared their ugly heads in the determination of the azeotropic boiling point. The mole fraction of the azeotropic boiling point discrepancy is not as easy to determine. The calculated mole fractions of cyclohexane and isopropyl alcohol were .6 and .4 respectively. The value is .67 for cyclohexane and .33 for isopropyl alcohol. . . .
Commentary that is both positive and corrective in combination with a component-based numerical grading system enables students to evaluate text and place value on written communication. Even those who do not take advantage of Dr. McDonald's accessibility are able to improve their future reports.

PURPOSE: The purpose of the formal reports is to teach students how to communicate to a scientific audience what they did in an experiment and why it is convincing evidence of the theory they set out to test. The formal report requires students to show mastery of scientific methodologies, rhetoric, and the writing style employed by practicing scientists.

Complete theoretical treatments of experiments as well as conclusions based on our own ideas for each experiment [were useful]. The most useful of these activities were the formal science reports. The library research project [gave me] the know-how to research topics used to formulate a report. --Student
2. LABORATORY NOTEBOOKS

Students are required to do eight "semi-formal" reports written in lab notebook format. These are essentially in the same format as the formal reports, including footnotes and references, but need not be typed. If a student makes an error, s/he is directed to draw a line through it so it is still legible, and the correction is entered next to it. The reports are written in ink, pages are numbered, and every page has the names of the experimenters, the title of the experiment, and the date. If instrumental records are included, they are signed and dated.

PURPOSE: The purposes of the laboratory notebook are similar to those of the formal report. The experimental write-ups in the notebook can be thought of as a draft of a formal report. In it, students learn how to keep a lab notebook as they would in a research laboratory and learn how to treat written errors and instrumental printouts.

RELATED WRITING ACTIVITIES

1. USING STUDENTS AS "RESIDENT EXPERTS"

During each laboratory session, ten different experiments are run because the cost of equipment prohibits multiple setups. The two-week deadline for the first assignment gives time for each pair of students to become experts on one of the ten. Subsequently, student pairs work on different experiments which are due in one week. Student pairs become "resident experts" on the first experiment that they did, and are expected to act as peer tutors. Other students go to them whenever they do that experiment.

I've got ten [experiments] going on at once, so [students] rotate around, and each pair is doing different things at any given time. In the lab the pair who did it first helps the others get started. If there are any questions, they're the resident experts. So we try to get the students talking to one another that way. The TAs and I spend a lot of time in the first lab with everybody getting them up to speed, and then they begin helping each other. --Instructor
2. FACILITATING WRITING WITH COMPUTERS

The presence of computers in the laboratory facilitates writing. Students already use the computers to analyze data and to write their formal reports. Professor McDonald has made arrangements to increase student access to computers in another department, and he plans to provide word-processing programs on the laboratory computers. After this is done, he wants to convert all the written reports to formal, computer-processed reports.

They would all be formal lab reports, because the notebook looks just like formal lab report, except it's written in the notebook. It really wouldn't require anything different between the two. And I think they're finding it so much easier to use word processors. -- Professor
This change could have an impact on writing and instructor input as students receive  support from the professor, teaching assistants, and "resident expert" peers in an ongoing writing and revising process.

Professor McDonald comments on his class (excerpts from an interview):

[Students] realize by this time that scientists have to be able to communicate. That's as important as doing the experiment properly. There are really two things [we want them to learn]. We want them to learn the chemistry, the science involved, and we emphasize that, and we also want them to learn how to communicate it. They're really tied together and I haven't been able to separate it.

They have to be able to communicate not to a non-scientist, but to another scientist what they did and why they think that's convincing evidence of what they set out to do. [I tell them]"You've got to write up the report that your boss is going to submit to management so that they will give you some more money."

But they should be taking (Writing-Intensive classes) outside of chemistry, too. We don't want them to have too many of them here that are required for chem majors because I want them to see other kinds of writing and ours is a particular way.

The upgrading of the chemistry laboratories with high technology equipment has led to several beneficial outcomes. What used to take two afternoons--now you put in an FTIR or something, you push a button and what used to take an entire afternoon to scan a spectrum we have in 29 seconds. It takes longer for the thing to plot it out than it does to make a measurement. And so it's getting so less and less time is spent at the lab bench and more and more at the computer. This is why the writing isn't bothering them as much. For the most part they have two lab periods to do one experiment, and they're getting it done in half the first one. And that gives them all this time to write it up. They're all sitting there about writing, and what they're going to do, and calculating their stuff. The lab is beautiful now, it has nice desks, and they all sit in there, so it's become a club in there. And that's the kind of atmosphere I've been hoping to have.