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Schiff and Colleagues Receive $3M to Study STEM Writing

New NSF-funded project will focus on writing-to-learn strategies in large-enrollment classes.

Leslie Schiff  (Microbiology) and Pamela Flash (Center for Writing), along with colleagues from the University of Michigan and Duke University, received a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate and implement writing-to-learn strategies in large-enrollment classes in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines.

“Lots of faculty use writing to learn,” says Schiff, “especially in short responses around content, but it can be a real challenge in large-enrollment courses. We want to know how faculty are already doing this and then understand what the impediments are to using writing in those settings.”

The project, "Collaborative Research: Accelerating the Pace of Research and Implementation of Writing-to-Learn Pedagogies across STEM disciplines,” builds on the work of the University of Minnesota's innovative Writing-Enriched Curriculum Program and on prior NSF support for research into the relationship between writing and critical thinking in undergraduate STEM thesis writers. Schiff and Sarah Hobbie (Ecology, Evolution and Behavior) serve as Writing-Enriched Curriculum liaisons for the college. Schiff also serves as the Associate Dean for the University Curriculum in the Office of Undergraduate Education.

Goals for the current project include investigating ways that faculty members and instructors understand scientific knowledge and critical thinking, understanding the relationship between brief instances of low-stakes writing activity and conceptual scientific learning; and creating a network of STEM faculty and instructors who use writing activity in their courses as means to enhancing relevant critical and creative thinking abilities.

Schiff plans to use the Foundations of Biology courses as an incubator for testing approaches developed over the course of the program with the help of Catherine Kirkpatrick (Biology Teaching and Learning) who will play a significant coordinating role. Students already write a lot in the Foundations sequence but this grant proposes to facilitate that work through technology. Kelaine Haas (CBS Student Services), the college’s undergraduate research coordinator, will continue her involvement through work to support capstone thesis writers.

“Students might think they want to be a scientist to avoid writing, but the truth is that writing is a huge part of what we do,” says Schiff. “We write grants to get support for our research, we write talks and papers to share our findings and we write lectures to educate our students. It’s imperative that we help prepare our students to be successful.”