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 The Science Essay  posted by  duggu   on 12/26/2007  Add Courseware to favorites Add To Favorites  
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Image of NASA's Cassini-Huygens project, a spacecraft and probe designed to study the planet Saturn.
Image of NASA's Cassini-Huygens project, a spacecraft and probe designed to study the planet Saturn. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

Course Highlights

This class features a full set of assignments.

Course Description

This class celebrates, analyzes and practices the art and craft of the Science Essay - that is, writing for a general audience on topics in science and technology. We read a variety of essays, but writing and revision are the main work of the class. This class is conducted as a combination workshop/seminar style class. (It is not a lecture class.)



In this class we celebrate, analyze, and practice the art and craft of the science essay. Drawing on your own interests and ideas, you will write essays of substance and grace that have science and technology as their subjects. A considerable part of the class will be given to Workshopping writing in small groups and as a class, and to revision of the major essays assigned: the class's focus is on students' own writing. To stimulate our thinking and provide models of a variety of approaches to the science essay, we will read works by essayists including Diane Ackerman, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Malcolm Gladwell, Alan Lightman, Bill Bryson and others, noting in particular how they bring scientific ideas to life for readers. Topics for discussion will include (but not be limited to) the nature of the essay; the challenge of explaining scientific concepts; the audience for science essays; science in cultural contexts; and themes in scientific biography.

The primary work of this class is to develop your skill in writing clearly and effectively, and to help you become aware of your own purposes as a writer and aware of the audience(s) you are writing for. You will write 6 essays in response to prompts from me, with wide latitude as to subject and approach for most assignments. Most of these essays will be short, 2-5 pages; the "long essay" assignment will be 10-12 pages. Revision is an important component of this class. All but Essay 1 will be revised once; Essay 5 (the long essay) and one other essay of your choice may be polished further.

This class will also have a service learning component: We will be partnering with an honors science class at Malden High School to help them research, write and revise an essay on the topic of "Home Science" (our Essay 2 assignment). This assignment will give us a fresh way to think about how we do research for science writing, how different audiences read our work, and to assess what we have learned thus far about writing and revising essays.

Major Assignments

Essay assignments will be detailed in a separate document. Here's a brief overview:

  • Essay 1 will be a 2-page reading response to get your writing muscles warmed up.
  • Essay 2, "Home Science," will be a 3-page essay on the science of something you encounter every day.
  • Essay 3, "Life/Science," will be a 4-page essay that grows out of your own experience.
  • Essay 4 will be a 5-page essay on the social impact of some aspect of science or technology on society.
  • Essay 5 (3 pages) will be a review of a book chosen from the list I will provide you.
  • Essay 6 will be a longer essay (10-12 pages) on a topic of your choosing.

Note: There are no tests in this class.

Reading Materials

There is no textbook for this class. Most class readings will be available via e-reserves through the MIT Library. A few readings will be handouts or available through web links.

For Essay 5, the Book Review, I will give you a list of 15 or so books from which to select. (You will have the list by Session 3.) You may want to purchase that book, or you may choose to work with a library copy.

I also strongly urge you to purchase a good college dictionary, if you do not already own one. By that I mean, not a pocket dictionary! If English is not your first language, you will need at least two good dictionaries.

Course Policies

Attendance: This class is structured more as a workshop than a lecture class. Your responsibility in the class is not only to be a writer, but also to read and respond to classmates' work and to participate in discussions. Therefore, attendance is important.

  • If you miss more than two classes for any reason, you risk getting a lower grade.
  • With five unexcused absences you will be withdrawn from the class. 
  • It is your responsibility to let me know why you are absent and to keep up with assignments when you do miss class.

Lateness is discourteous to your classmates and to your professor. Your grade for class participation will suffer if you are habitually late.

Deadlines: To participate in class discussions, you must read assignments on time. It is also imperative that you bring a draft to class on workshop days and be prepared for oral presentations. Deadlines for revisions will be more flexible. All work must be handed in no later than two days after Session 26.

Conferences: You are required to have one conference with me, but I encourage more. Bring specific questions about your writing, such as how to make an introduction more vivid or how to connect the ideas in your essay. You are also welcome to use conference time to continue discussions begun in class or try out ideas sparked by your reading. If you can't make a conference appointment, please let me know.


  • I will grade each original draft and revision. 
  • Please note that for me to evaluate a revised essay, I must have the first marked-up draft along with the new one.

The quality of your writing will be the primary criterion for your semester grade. I'll also take into consideration effort and improvement, especially as demonstrated by revision, and class participation, including your participation in workshops. "A" work is so accomplished in skill, substance and style that it would delight an editor. "B" work is good, solid work. "C" work is satisfactory but with little to recommend it. "D" work meets the requirements of the course by the skin of its teeth and by the reader's open-hearted charity. "F" is reserved for work that does not satisfy the requirements of the course.

For this class, Essays 2-5 will each count for 15% of your final grade. The long essay (Essay 5) will count for 30% of your final grade. Class participation and Essay 1 together will count for 10% of  your grade.

Note: At the end of the term I will ask to see a Portfolio with all your drafts, to better judge your progress and accomplishment-so keep all your work!

Plagiarism: To borrow someone else's language and/or ideas without attribution is academically and professionally dishonest, and cheats both you and your readers. It can also have serious consequences to your academic career. MIT takes plagiarism seriously: Plagiarism in this class will result in an automatic F and a letter in your file; a second violation can result in expulsion. We'll discuss in class ways to properly acknowledge sources. Style handbooks such as A Pocket Style Manual contain discussions of plagiarism, and offer many examples of how to cite sources, as does the Mayfield Handbook for Technical Writing. Please note: for this class, it is not acceptable to hand in a paper that you wrote for another class, even though it is your own work.


MIT's Libraries

The Boston Public Library

Reference help, including the Oxford English Dictionary, is available at Dictionaries and Thesauri.

The MIT's Writing Center site  gives you info on how to make an appointment for a session with a writing tutor, as well as links to help regarding grammar. You will also find a definition of plagiarism at this site.
[Note: The Writing Center is not just for students who are struggling to pass writing classes - it is an excellent resource for all writers in the MIT community.]

Note: I am happy to hear from you by e-mail with questions and comments about class, and will respond as promptly as I can. However, I will not read drafts submitted electronically.

About Workshopping (PDF)





Course Overview

2 Playing with Ideas

Homework 1  due
3 Grabbing the Reader


Expressing Judgments
Homework 2 due
4 Workshop Essay 1 in Small Groups and as a Class

Discuss Service Learning Project
Homework 3 due
5 Workshop w/Partner

Discuss Cole and Angier
Homework 4 due
6 Workshop "Home Science" with Malden HS Homework 5 due
7 Discuss Kanigel, Sacks and Gould: Scientific Biography Homework 6 due
8 Discuss Denby

Prewriting for Essay 3, Life/Science
Homework 7 due
9 Present Essay 3 Topics

Discuss Gladwell, "John Rock's Error"
Homework 8 due
10 Workshop  Essay 3, Small Groups Homework 9 due
11 Workshop Essay 3 Whole Class

Discuss dePalma: Science and Commerce
Homework 10 due
12 Discuss Gladwell, "Running from Ritalin": Argument and Evidence Homework 11 due
13 Discuss Galison

Hear and Collect Proposals for Essay 4

(Note: I will respond to your proposals three days after Session 13)
Homework 12 due
14 Workshop Essay 4 w/Partner Homework 13 due
15 Workshop Essay 4 Whole Class

Brainstorm Essay 5, Book Review
Homework 14 due
16 Video: Michael Frayn's Copenhagen Homework 15 due
17 Workshop Essay 5, Small Groups Homework 16 due
18 Workshop Essay 5 Whole Class Homework 17 due
19 Present Ideas for Long Essay Homework 18 due
20 Work with Rough Drafts Homework 19 due
21 Work on Essay 6

(I will be in my office during class time should you want to consult. You do not need to check in with me.)
Homework 20 due
22 Workshop Essay 6 in pairs Homework 21 due
23 Work on Essay 6 Revision; Workshop an Essay Homework 22 due
24 Guest Speaker: Marcia Bartusiak

(Author of Einstein's Unfinished Symphony: Listening to the Sounds of Space-Time , which Won the 2001 American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award)
Homework 23 due
25 Work on Re-revision, Hear 3 Writers' Favorite Work

(Please plan to read approx. 10 minutes of your favorite work from this class (your own writing!)-either one short essay or excerpts from a longer piece. You may also read parts of 2 essays if you prefer.)
Homework 24 due
26 Hear 4 Writers' Favorite Work

(Please plan to read approx. 10 minutes of your favorite work from this class (your own writing!)-either one short essay or excerpts from a longer piece. You may also read parts of 2 essays if you prefer.)

Homework 25 due   Tell A Friend