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Composition in Scientific Inquiry: SeuratSpots, Disco Balls, and the Making of Meaning in Science

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Composition in Scientific Inquiry:
SeuratSpots, Disco Balls, and the
Making of Meaning in Science
Dr. Kim Jaxon & Dr. Lesli...
NSCI 321: Scientific Inquiry future elementary school teachers
Thursday, March 20, 14
Lots of writing structures: notebooks...
scientists write...
Thursday, March 20, 14
Scientist
s write.
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Composition in Scientific Inquiry: SeuratSpots, Disco Balls, and the Making of Meaning in Science

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Presentation at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), March 2014, in Indianapolis, IN.

Presentation at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), March 2014, in Indianapolis, IN.

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Composition in Scientific Inquiry: SeuratSpots, Disco Balls, and the Making of Meaning in Science

  1. 1. Composition in Scientific Inquiry: SeuratSpots, Disco Balls, and the Making of Meaning in Science Dr. Kim Jaxon & Dr. Leslie Atkins California State University, Chico CCCC March 2014 Thursday, March 20, 14 Kim Jaxon, Assistant Professor in Composition & Literacy at Chico State. My colleague, Leslie is a physics and Science Education professor. We also work with a biologist and Science Ed professor Irene Salter on this NSF funded project. For the past two years, we have rotated through team teaching or taking the research lead in the course in alternating semesters. Background: NSCI 321, Scientific Inquiry, is a course Leslie originally created for future elementary school teachers. Not many science majors, but a few. The course is truly scientific inquiry...not about answers but about asking questions and pursuing curiosities as scientists would do. Last few semesters, we’ve studied color, light and the eye. Often start semester with the question: “Is every color in the rainbow?”
  2. 2. NSCI 321: Scientific Inquiry future elementary school teachers Thursday, March 20, 14 Lots of writing structures: notebooks, whiteboards, silent science, homework, exams (take home and group), reading, peer response, gallery walks. Large activity space. Room has lasers, maglites, rulers, lenses, microscopes, etc. Write all the time; every day. We’ll talk about the influence of composition pedagogy in this course and show an example of how writing is used to support students pursuing science related questions. We fully embrace the work of composition scholars before us who argue for students rights to their own language and meaning making, even though this idea may be a bit foreign in science classes.
  3. 3. scientists write... Thursday, March 20, 14 Scientist s write.
  4. 4. Sir Charles Darwin Alexander G. Bell Thursday, March 20, 14 They scribble on chalkboards; construct representations; annotate graphs and photos; jot ideas in notebooks; try on, revise, and reject those ideas; send emails; scrawl notes in the margins of papers; write grants; draft conference proceedings; put together presentations; and, if all goes well, tidy up this work into a publishable journal article —
  5. 5. Albert EinsteinLinus Pauling (on the structure of hemoglobin) Thursday, March 20, 14 all in a living, iterative process of idea-development. In this way writing in the sciences is not just a means to communicate knowledge, but a way to build knowledge within the scientific community; it generates, persuades, critiques, challenges, and defends ideas in conversation with other scientists.
  6. 6. Manhattan Project NotebookLinus Pauling (on the crystal structure of bottinoite) Thursday, March 20, 14 Science does this using a specialized language (a scientific discourse), with its own vocabulary and organization that is embodied by a community of scientists working together to make sense of the natural world, communicate those ideas, and construct arguments in defense of them (Latour & Woolgar, 1979).
  7. 7. Discourses: “...ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing.” Gee, Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses Thursday, March 20, 14 In terms of the literacy practices that make up scientific discourse, Gee argues that the use of reading and writing is always connected to a larger set of discourses, which are never simply a matter of vocabulary and syntax, but “ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing” (Gee, Social Linguistics and Literacies, 41). Writing, in a huge variety of forms, is an essential, inextricable part of the discourse of a scientist.
  8. 8. Thursday, March 20, 14 Historically, the approach, at most universities, has been to delegate the responsibility for teaching “academic writing” to English or Composition departments. An instructor in science, then, may assign tasks that require writing but often does not provide any explicit attention to teaching writing: the belief is that writing is a skill that is learned in one class, put in a student’s pocket, and taken out when there is a need “to write.” In fact, many faculty outside the field of composition expect that the ubiquitous “freshman comp” course will solve the writing problems found in students’ texts, teach students “to write,” and prepare students with “the basics” so they are ready to write in any discipline. The physics instructor, in such folk theories of writing, teaches “content” that populates students’ well-written essays; the writing skills, it is imagined, are taught elsewhere.
  9. 9. Learning to write is not a generic skill, widely applicable in a range of disciplines and settings, but 1) must be taught within the community of practice that uses writing, and 2) is an ongoing process, learned over and over again as people encounter and solve problems that call for writing. Thursday, March 20, 14 Unfortunately, years of research in composition and literacy leads us to an understanding that learning to write is simply not that tidy. Learning “to write” means understanding the ways in which a particular community uses inscriptions to make meaning. Therefore, “learning to write” is not a generic skill, widely applicable in a range of disciplines and settings, but 1) must be taught within the community of practice that uses writing, and 2) is an ongoing process, learned over and over again as people encounter and solve problems that call for writing. A student can successfully complete a first-year writing course, but the practices learned in that course are not easily transferred to other contexts.
  10. 10. “To try to teach students to improve their writing by taking a [general writing skills course] is something like trying to teach people to improve their ping-pong, jacks, volleyball, basketball, field hockey, and so on by attending a course in general ball-using. Such a course would of necessity have a problem of content. What kinds of games (and therefore ball-use skills) should one teach? And how can one teach ball-using skills unless one also teaches students the games, since the skills have their motive and meaning only in terms of a particular game or games that use them?” Russell, “Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction” Thursday, March 20, 14 David Russell, in “Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction,” uses an Activity Theory framework to explore the problem of teaching writing as a generalized skill and ultimately argue for more institutional support for Writing Across the Curriculum programs. As part of his argument, Russell compares the analogy of teaching a course on ball-using skills to our traditional approach to teaching writing in the university: quote For Russell, and other literacy and composition scholars, the purpose and goals associated with writing in a discipline only make sense within the activity system of that discipline. Again, as Russell argues in relation to evaluation of writing, “...ways of using a ball that worked well in one game (volleyball, for example) would bring disaster in another (such as soccer)” (10). Similarly, what worked well in a composition course (the kinds of statements that require support; what support “counts;” how sources are embedded within an argument, etc.) would “bring disaster” to another discipline, such as science, with its own ways of crafting an argument with claims, data, citations, and models. Teaching students to write well in science class is, then, something that can only be taught in science class.
  11. 11. “...lose more than we gain by preempting their control and allowing our own Ideal Texts to dictate choices that properly belong to the writers.” “...undervalue[s] student efforts to communicate what they have to say in the way they wish to say it.” Brannon & Knoblauch, “On Students’ Rights to Their Own Texts: A Model of Teacher Response” Thursday, March 20, 14 More than thirty years ago, the field of composition began to focus attention on the role of student agency in writing instruction and argue for students’ rights to their own language (Sommers, 1982; Brannon & Knoblauch, 1982; Straub, 1996). Rather than assignments and feedback designed to correct student ideas, fix student grammar, impose particular structures, or enforce strict conventions, it is argued, faculty “lose more than we gain by preempting their control and allowing our own Ideal Texts to dictate choices that properly belong to the writers” (Brannon & Knoblauch, 159). When these choices about the structure and content of student texts are made by the instructor, and not the student, it “undervalue[s] student efforts to communicate what they have to say in the way they wish to say it” (Brannon & Knoblauch, 159). The implication for the teaching of writing within the disciplines is that students’ ideas and their efforts to communicate those ideas must be taken seriously, and further, it is assumed that students, like any writer, intend to make meaning when they write. The challenge in responding to student texts does not lie in determining whether students have a right to try on and play with ideas or to make their own choices in their writing, but how to respond to student texts in a way that both preserves student agency and furthers their development as nascent scientists. One strategy regularly employed by composition faculty is to create a classroom where students are asked the same questions we would ask of any colleague who needed feedback on a draft: What is the purpose and who is the audience for this text? Where is this draft in the writing process? What kind of feedback is needed? The student writer often knows what kind of feedback she needs, especially when she views her writing as intentional and worthy of being taken up as a serious attempt at constructing and communicating scientific ideas.
  12. 12. © DK Publishing [2010] $ 35 The bad and ugly microbes Background knowledge Some microbes, often called germs, can cause illness or disease. Chickenpox, mumps, and measles are caused by microbes. They are infectious diseases. Some microbes can cause food to decay. Moldy bread or fruit, sour milk, and rotten meat are examples of decayed food. If eaten, this rotten food and drink can cause stomach upsets. Other microbes cause tooth decay. You can protect yourself from harmful microbes by storing and preparing food properly, cleaning your teeth, washing your hands, and by avoiding close contact with ill people. Science activity Science investigation Look at the picture above. It shows a number of unhygienic ways in which germs can travel into food and cause illness. List all of the ways this could happen in the picture. Design and conduct an experiment to see what type of bread grows mold the best. Obtain different samples of bread. Make sure to wash your hands before and after each time you experiment. Explain why mold grows better on some bread than on others. Take extra care - ask an adult to supervise you. © Dorling Kindersley Limited [2010] Thursday, March 20, 14 Such strategies, however, run counter to the usual practices of science instruction. The typical problem set and lab report asks that students use canonical ideas in predetermined ways to reach known solutions. The fact that there is “a” solution set — an idea foreign to composition courses— suggests that the “ideal text” exists and it is a students’ job to find it, usually by mimicking similar worked examples. In order for science faculty to employ the instructional practices that composition scholars recommend, we must re-imagine how we assign, assess and respond to student writing. In particular, we must develop practices that support students’ rights to their own texts and allow students to construct meaning in ways that make sense to them. In our Scientific Inquiry course, students’ models and ideas form the content of the course. We argue that, by attending and responding to these ideas—rather than focusing their attention on canonical ideas and disciplinary conventions— students are fully engaged in the scientific practices—including writing—that characterize science disciplines.
  13. 13. Thursday, March 20, 14 In the design of structures and activities, we pay particular attention to the ways in which multimodal composing—informal science notebooks, diagrams on whiteboards, images shared online, and conversations around these inscriptions—model and reflect the composing practices of scientists.
  14. 14. Thursday, March 20, 14 In doing so, we are interested in how students are developing as “science writers,” (that is, attending to whether students are adopting the specific practices that scientists use to construct texts), rather than focusing on improving students’ “science writing” (that is, attending to pieces of writing as evidence for improvement). This distinction is important, and again, one that composition studies takes as its focus: support the growth of the writer as a way of improving the writing.
  15. 15. Thursday, March 20, 14 We offer an example in which students are constructing models to explain their observations of pinhole cameras. As one group considered how, for example, the image of a tree “fit” through the pinhole, they began thinking of the tree not as a whole, but made of tiny points of color, each of which sends a ray into the pinhole.
  16. 16. Thursday, March 20, 14 These points students described as “SeuratSpots” because of the similarity to the Impressionist painting style. The model played a central role in further discussions of light and images in our class, including our descriptions of images and focus. Cassandra, a student in the course, first introduced the concept of SeuratSpots as a way to describe what she thought might be happening on an iPhone screen. Over the course of the semester, students take up and refine her idea many times in the service of explaining their own ideas about light and focus. “SeuratSpots” is not a term or explanatory model used across scientific communities to understand focus; however, it is representative of the way scientists construct models to explain phenomena. Unlike science classes where students memorize terms or follow a lab report template, students in the Scientific Inquiry course take on the habits and ways of being scientists: they construct models and definitions to support the groups’ understanding of an idea.
  17. 17. Thursday, March 20, 14 There are a variety of structures that support the development of students’ ideas and the “take-up” of those ideas for use by the class. One structure is the role of instructor feedback, particularly early in the course, that makes it clear that students’ ideas are valued. The science instructor (Atkins) does not focus her feedback on “fixing” the sentences or the ideas, but instead she focuses attention on asking clarifying questions (real questions she has about students’ ideas), valuing their questions, and taking up students’ terminology as a worthy way to talk about concepts in the class session.
  18. 18. While this may seem ridiculous, I would like to explore this inquiry through an exploration of technology screens. For example, a computer monitor or television can only depict the colors red, green, and blue in each pixel; however, we are clearly able to see each color on the monitor. This is created through proximity of pixels (like a painting by Seurat!) The rainbow may in fact be like a giant pointillism canvas filled with an infinite number of dots. --Cassandra (student) --THIS! THIS IS A QUESTION! Your group started looking at iPhone screens today, right? I'd love to see you do more with this. Like: why red/green/blue? How does a TV screen show a rainbow if it's only using red/ green/blue? --Leslie (Instructor) Thursday, March 20, 14 Here’s an excerpt from Cassandra’s response to the first homework assignment (which asked students to address the question: “Is every color in the rainbow?”). Cassandra adds this idea at the end of the assignment. The instructor’s comments are in italics. There are many ways to respond to Cassandra’s writing. The assignment did not ask for such speculation, and instead called for students to make and defend a claim regarding color. The phrasing “while this may seem ridiculous…” and the exclamation point in her parenthetical comment are not typical of scientific texts, and an instructor could identify for the student that this kind of language is not appropriate for science assignments. The redundancy in the first sentence (“explore...through an exploration”) is also not the focus of Leslie’s comment. The idea Cassandra offers—that a rainbow may be a “pointillism canvas” that gives the illusion of colors not actually present—is, in fact, the opposite of what a rainbow is doing (separating white light into its constituent wavelengths); the instructor could address this and discourage the student from pursuing this line of reasoning. Alternatively, the instructor could suggest recommended readings that address the students’ misconception or provide a template for writing that would have avoided such idiosyncratic writing and ideas. All of these possible responses, Brannon and Knoblauch argue, “[tend] to show students that the teacher's agenda is more important than their own, that what they wanted to say is less relevant than the teacher's impression of what they should have said” (158). Instead of “fixing” Cassandra’s ideas and writing, the instructor shows enthusiasm for this student’s ideas, attending to the nascent attempts to model color. The comment shows that the idea is indeed not ridiculous at all. The instructor recognizes that the idea is one that the students have already (since submitting the assignment) begun to pursue and she can imagine the variety of questions that their pursuit raises.
  19. 19. Image from a student’s notebook adopting Cassandra’s pointillism ontology of images. “all SeuratSpots make one set of overlapping round blobs” Thursday, March 20, 14 Over time, the idea that Cassandra articulates here—that the colors we see are created by the “proximity” of adjacent colors—will be supported by Cassandra’s group through their inquiry, models, and descriptions of technology screens. They puzzle over why red and green in proximity appear yellow for lights and brown for pigments. The idea primarily stays within their group as they reason through color mixing questions. In our next unit on light, beginning with the pinhole camera, the idea of pointillism continues to be a productive way of modeling images, and other students begin adopting Cassandra’s language. In Jonathan’s notebook (one of Cassandra’s lab partners from the color unit), we see him using her term “SeuratSpot” as he reasons through the “blurriness” associated with a large hole
  20. 20. Kait: But you have multiple light rays coming off from the same SeuratSpot. Amy: ...but they're not actually coming off of like, the exact same spot. Because a light ray can't like, break. So it's like two light rays that are really really close to each other... Trevor: That's the problem though - because it's one single spot and it's got light rays going in all those directions. It's not a bunch of little spots sending out a bunch of light rays. Kait: It's the same exact spot. Amy: But light doesn't do that. Thursday, March 20, 14 As we move on to consider the structures in the eye—many months after Cassandra’s original conjecture—class debate considers how it is that images appear in focus. The debate concerns the following question: does each “SeuratSpot” reflect a ray in one direction, (and a collection of spots send rays in multiple directions), or does each SeuratSpot diffusely reflect light in all directions?
  21. 21. “SSRP” for “Seurat Spot Reunification Point.” Thursday, March 20, 14 Students remain divided; among those who believe rays leave a single SeuratSpot, they come to define a “focal point” as follows: “a point of convergence. As for our eye it is a point where all of the light rays from a single SeuratSpot are angled back to a single SeuratSpot, this focal point being on our retina.” They label their diagram “SSRP” for “Seurat Spot Reunification Point.”
  22. 22. “I never thought of writing down observations as composing. I don't remember ever really writing in my other science classes. Of course I wrote down data and occasionally my hypothesis, but we didn't have papers or journals where we had to explain what was happening.” – Rachel “Writing in this class has been very different than other classes. Most other science classes require very little original thinking. This was really the only class where I had to put my 100% authentic, personal theories and ideas into writing.” –Cory “[Writing] differs from what I have done in my past science class mainly because in my other science classes we usually had some form of resource, whether it was a textbook or workbook, or handouts. In this science class, it was our notebooks, and discussing the topics with our groups and classmates, and testing our ideas to see if it made sense. I have learned that the writing practices we did in class were meant for us to think in a deeper level.” –Barbara Thursday, March 20, 14 The students’ reflections, and post-course interviews we did with students, demonstrate that students are able to articulate how these diverse forms of writing support their scientific thinking. Students understand that these forms of writing serve different purposes in the course, but taken together, the writing tasks all contribute to the refinement and sharing of scientific ideas.
  23. 23. Thursday, March 20, 14 By allowing students the right to their own ideas and texts as they construct scientific ideas (as highlighted above, the questionable idea that the colors in a rainbow are a pointillism-like collection of colors that can be investigated using a pixilated screen) and engaging with those ideas in scientific ways—through investigations described in lab notebooks, conversations captured on whiteboards, debates that force questions of precisely defined terms—we find that students come to employ sophisticated writing practices in the service of scientific inquiry. Rather than ‘fixing’ the content or structure of students’ writing, it is through engaging with their ideas that we can support the development of students as scientific writers.
  24. 24. http://phys.csuchico.edu/~ljatkins/SGSI/SGSI.html kjaxon@csuchico.edu We wish to thank students from Scientific Inquiry, research assistants Andrew Lerner and Tony DeCasper, and colleague Irene Salter. The project is funded by NSF DUE-1140860. Thursday, March 20, 14 http://phys.csuchico.edu/~ljatkins/SGSI/SGSI.html

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