My upper-level course on writing in the natural sciences was filled with technical writing or communication majors developing and honing their skills in writing, presentation, visual communication, and user experience strategies. Most had limited, if any, college-level natural sciences coursework. Students are taught to use the fundamental tenets of their home discipline—technical writing—and apply it outside of their discipline, the natural sciences. Since both technical writing and writing in the natural sciences engage in public communication, technical writing students should participate in what Salvo (2002) describes as “repeat[ed] cycles of observing, critiquing, articulating, and creating designs of information objects [i.e., texts].” Yet Johnson-Eiola (1996, 246) suggests that most technical communication projects enhance other processes, occupying “a secondary position to the users’ main objective . . . real work easily becomes defined in reductive, context-independent ways: small, decontextualized functional tasks rather than large, messy ‘real world’ projects.” Henning and Desy (2008, 41) amplify these considerations, further explaining that “students find it difficult to write in a manner that emphasizes the audience’s needs rather than the writer’s needs or the subject matter.”
Throughout college, students must regularly shuttle between disciplines and their distinct approaches to knowledge creation and skills development, as they ready themselves for the real world. Indeed, successfully moving between abstract and applied learning is one of the key outcomes of undergraduate education. Like the skills themselves, such as those involved in technical writing, moving from abstract to applied learning offers opportunities for faculty to design deliberate in-class exercises as sites for students to practice this vital skill. While teaching as a leave replacement at the University of Washington Tacoma, I developed one such class exercise: a visit to and critique of the Washington State History Museum, varying an exercise that Henning and Desy explore in their science and technical writing course, where students prepare poster exhibits for their on-campus natural history museum. Their museum project, they suggest, “provides an important out-of-classroom context that can enhance all students’ understanding” (41–42). In such exercises, students not only experience the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge but also critically engage and apply their disciplinary expertise in rhetorical spaces.
My in-class exercise allowed, generally, discussion about communication and curation in museums, particularly related to how the museum incorporated information about the natural sciences and where additional natural sciences information may have enriched the displays. In addition, the in-class exercise offered students a site where effective and strategic communicators and technical writers are needed and where students may not have realized that there was such a need. Museums need effective communicators, especially since the responsibilities for communication require accurate presentation of information to multiple audiences and expertise in researched academic writing.
Even more so, however, I deliberately chose a state history museum—rather than a science or natural history museum—to foreground knowledge and understanding as interdisciplinary and applicable, which allows for this exercise to be used to connect disciplines across campus to sites that initially seem to be unrelated. Additionally, except for a gallery devoted to geologic history, references to natural sciences in the museum are limited, scattered throughout the human history being portrayed. Rather than a detriment, this was an advantage that spoke to the foundational role that that natural sciences play in the state’s history and challenged students to determine how additional or different natural sciences details would enhance the telling of that history.
In setting up the exercise, I noted that writing in and about the natural sciences does not occur only in typical natural sciences places, such as research journals or reports—and writing in and about the natural sciences need not be confined to these places alone. Students had 60 minutes in the state history museum, enough time for them to complete the exercise and to wander in the museum; many students had never been in the museum before, despite it being literally across the street from the university. To focus attention, I assigned small groups of students to specific areas of the museum, providing them with a museum map that highlighted their area and showed the connections among exhibit areas. Each group focused their critical responses in two areas.
First, students gathered evidence from the exhibits that would explain and elaborate on how communication in and about the natural sciences is performed in the museum. I provided a number of questions to prompt their thinking:
- What is the topic of the exhibit, and what is its primary purpose?
- Who is the target audience, and what evidence enables you to draw this conclusion?
- What forms of media are used to present information? Are they effective? Why or why not?
- What kinds of rhetorical or technical writing strategies are used?
- How is the exhibit organized—for example, historically, thematically, or topically? Does the method of organization seem logical and clear? What are the communication goals of the written and visual artifacts in the museums?
- In particular, look for how and where natural sciences information is included in the exhibits. How do the exhibits convey scientific ideas and information to the audience?
- What conclusions do you draw about the effective of this communication in an about the natural sciences in a history museum?
Second, once students completed this general overview, they identified two specific exhibits in their section of the museum that they would advocate for including information (or more detail) about the natural sciences so as to enrich the exhibit. As part of these considerations, they also considered how the focus of the state history exhibit would change if the amount of natural sciences information was increased.
We reconvened as a class to discuss their findings and how the museum’s audience influenced the communication. In addition to their delight about doing something different for class—“I haven’t been on a field trip in 30 years!”—students’ critical observations about natural sciences’ communication were astute. In a gallery focused on Indigenous crafts, they suggested additional information about the botanical species would lend readers a deeper understanding of the natural resource riches of the state and each region as well as effectively highlight the deep historical and cultural relationship Indigenous peoples have had to natural resources. Students also were able to recognize and articulate their own expertise. One student, a military veteran with a decade-long career in nuclear power, noticed how the museum should be more exacting in its explanation of the differences between “nuclear power “and “nuclear bombs.” Another student with deep interest and expertise in wildlife conservation and state geology talked other students through how the state’s parks and waterways would align with the geology portrayed on a 20th-century souvenir bandana as well as with the ecological and environmental effects of the current interstate freeway and state highway systems.
This museum exercise allowed students to expand the focus of the class from “just” writing in the natural sciences to communicating in and about the natural sciences, of which writing is a key but not sole component. Students critically engaged with visual rhetorical strategies, such as color and texture, placement of headings and paragraph subheadings, and location and layout of displays. They wrestled with where additional natural sciences information would be most effectively located in a display and how best to strategically employ this information in both text and imagery. They also had to determine how much and what type of natural sciences detail was important to include in a state history museum—not insignificant considerations given the tensions of the Anthropocene regarding human social impact on the natural world.
In addition to introducing students to communities beyond their classmates—historical communities across the entire state as well as the city just across the street—the museum exercise offered one other key advantage. It identified real-world sites in need of sharp, critical writers who can consider issues of audience, rhetoric, and presentation and apply their learning outside their discipline. It expanded students’ ideas about what they might do as science communicators in a variety of occupations, effectively demonstrating interdisciplinary career paths for students. Museums are one of many sites where university academic coursework crosses into experiential professional work; students can actually see where their educational skills can be used after graduation. The call for more intentional career preparation is heard across all campuses and in all disciplines. Faculty willing to broaden their perspective of where their discipline is located—finding natural sciences in a history museum, for example—identify connections from college to career and expand students’ conceptions about just where they and their skilled academic acumen can be effectively employed in the world.
Salvo, Michael J. 2002. “Critical Engagement with Technology in the Computer Classroom.” Technical Communication Quarterly 11, no. 3: 316–37. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15427625tcq1103_5.
Henning, Teresa B., and Elizabeth A. Desy. 2008. “Museum Exhibits and Science Literacy: Using Technical Writing and Science to Make Connections among Disciplines and Communities.” The Journal of Effective Teaching 8, no. 2: 40–49. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1055584.pdf.
Johnson-Eiola, Johndan. 1996. “Relocating the Value of Work: Technical Communication in a Post-Industrial Age.” Technical Communication Quarterly 5: 245–70. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15427625tcq0503_1.
Laura Behling, PhD, is professor of English at the University of Puget Sound. Her teaching and scholarship focus on health humanities, journalism, science writing, and contemporary US literature. She consults with institutions about faculty development and leadership, career-focused education and undergraduate research in the humanities, faculty governance, and curriculum and course design.
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