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The Department of Earth Sciences is an interdisciplinary department within the University’s College of Science and Engineering. The department’s 28 faculty members teach courses that use theoretical, computational, experimental, and observational techniques to understand the integrated physical, chemical, and biological processes that link the solid Earth to surface dynamics and life. The approximately 70 students enrolled as Earth Sciences majors study the history and functions of our planet from its origin to today.
Writing in Earth Sciences
The Earth Sciences faculty generated the following description in response to the question, “What characterizes academic and professional communication in this discipline?”
The Earth sciences are unique in that they require researchers to understand the historical background of a system in order to understand its current configuration and behavior and to predict its future behavior. The time dependence of many of the physical, chemical, and biological processes is such that even some modern processes can only be studied completely by including consideration of the geological record. Moreover, the configuration and behavior of the Earth and its biota as an integrated system of physical, chemical, and biological processes has evolved over 4.5 billion years, so even purely theoretical or experimental studies must often consider the temporal dimension. As writers, Earth scientists synthesize the geological history of a topic and place their own scientific examination within the context of this setting, whether the writing is in an academic mode or in the context of clients or stakeholders in the private or state sectors. In any particular instance of writing, Earth scientists commonly draw on concepts not only from many sub-disciplines of the field, but also from disparate other disciplines (e.g., physics, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, evolutionary biology, ecology, computer science).
Consequently, writing in Earth sciences frequently is highly integrative. Beyond this, writing in the Earth sciences is generally similar to writing in any other branch of the physical and life sciences in terms of the typical attributes of the different types of writing. These include:
- A logical structure that links questions, hypotheses, and/or models to data and/or observations and reflects
- the scientific reasoning from observations to conclusions
- Concise, clear, and logical statement of the problem(s) under investigation or hypothesis being tested, including discussion of the motivation for the observations or tests
- Appropriately comprehensive summary of the current state of knowledge of the system
- Synthesis of ideas and data from disparate sources and often scientific disciplines outside of Earth sciences proper
- Concise descriptions of observational settings; field, analytical, and/or experimental methods; and results in an organized fashion using clear and precise language
- Precise, complete, and explicit description and discussion of concepts, data, relationships between patterns and processes, and interpretations
- Use of informative graphics and appropriate quantitative concepts to present and describe the questions, hypotheses, and/or models under consideration and to present and describe data and results in support of interpretations and conclusions
- Summarize contributions of a particular study and lay out future work on the problem.
Writing Abilities Expected of Earth Sciences Majors
The Earth Sciences faculty generated the following list in response to the question, "With which writing abilities should students in this unit’s major(s) graduate?”
Minimum Requirements for Writing in the Major:
- Synthesize information and ideas from multiple and/or disparate sources to gain information about the world around us and explain this understanding to readers. Students should be able to combine ideas into a novel combination to describe the evolution of a system in geological time and, ideally, answer a question or test a hypothesis or model rather than simply list individually ideas from various sources.
- Communicate Earth Science concepts and information to diverse audiences, including other scientists, general public, government officials, and various stakeholders in a given issue involving Earth science.
- Write explicitly, precisely, and intentionally to the potential reader(s) so as to minimize alternative or ambiguous meanings or readings (except as intended).
- Communicate clearly in writing what they did and observed (in the field and/or lab), read (in an article, book, and/or website), or heard (in class, lab, and/or the field) so that the observations are understandable to someone who was not present.
- Explain in words the meaning of data and figures so that they are understandable to a reader who does not have the data or figures.
- Explain in words the meaning of complex equations that describe processes or concepts beyond simply stating the identity of each variable or component of an equation.
Menu of Grading Criteria Used in Earth Sciences Courses
Synthesis and summarization:
- Includes multiple/disparate sources and is not overly narrow in scope.
- Includes original thought and analysis, goes beyond simple agglomeration of facts.
- Uses appropriate economy of language.
Addressing the target audience:
- Consistently uses language, content, and formats appropriate for target audience.
- Demonstrates technical competence and follows professional guidelines [scientific audience].
- Effectively distills complex information into accessible content without use of jargon.
- Technical details are simplified and condensed without sacrificing meaning or accuracy [non-scientific audience].
Clarity and organization:
- Communicates clearly and unambiguously.
- Describes what is seen (in the field/lab), read (in an article/book/website), or heard (in class/lab/field) so that the observations and information is understandable to someone who was not present.
- Answers a question or makes a point using logically sequenced, clear, and informative sentences.
Flow and transition:
- Word choice and order provide continuity between sentences and paragraphs.
Figures, captions, and equations:
- Explain in words the meaning of data and figures so that they are understandable to someone who does not have the data or figures.
- Moves beyond identification of the variables or components of an equation to explain the meaning of equations in terms of processes and/or concepts.
- Communicates information, data, and concepts in figures, graphs, and/or diagrams clearly with adequate labels and complete captions and without extraneous or distracting elements.
- Uses proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Sources and citations:
- Avoids biased or unscientific information, or appeals to false authority.
- Internal citations and reference lists follow an established scientific format.
Highlights from the Writing Plan
The Campus Writing Board approved the department's first-edition Writing Plan in July 2013. Earth Sciences faculty members created a comprehensive curricular map showing which departmentally-identified student writing abilities are expected in which courses and assignments, as well as whether and how those abilities are being taught, practiced, and built upon. The results of this mapping guided the department's subsequent implementation activities.
In its second-edition Writing Plan, implementation focused on making the use of WEC rating criteria more explicit in courses which include writing. A WEC RA carried out individual meetings with faculty and discussed grading rubrics and genres common in Earth Sciences writing.
For its third-edition Writing Plan, approved in Spring 2017, Earth Sciences has articulated four core activities to sustain its WEC efforts: (1) developing an online Writing and Communication resource—linked to the department’s homepage—which includes guidelines for creating scientific, posters, presentations, and other documents important to fields in the geosciences. ; (2) launching a half-day training workshop on writing instruction for Teaching Assistants; (3) integrating WEC assessment efforts with the department’s evaluation of its Student Learning Objective #4, "Students can communicate scientific information and ideas effectively to various audiences in appropriate modes"; and (4) piloting ELI Review, an online peer review platform, in several upper-division courses.