Weekly Teaching Note
Feb 02 2011
Sample Writing Assignment for an Introductory Science Course


I teach a one-semester course that is an introduction to both physics and chemistry for non-science majors. Most of the students are freshmen who usually have weak science backgrounds and typically take this course merely to fulfill a requirement. In order to make the course more meaningful, I try to show how physics and chemistry are involved in the students’ daily lives.

I think it is important for students in any course to write a paper, but I have struggled to find an appropriate writing assignment for this intro course. Ideally, the topic would be interesting to the students, not require a high level of scientific knowledge, and yet require some literature research and analysis. The writing assignment has evolved into a four-page paper on a scientific topic of current interest in the news, such as “Nuclear Power Plants - Should We Build More or Not?” I place slips of paper with different topics (see below) into a hat and have students draw their topic. If a student has a different topic about which s/he would like to write, I allow the topic if it is reasonable. All topics have “two sides to the coin.” Students must research both sides and discuss the positive and negative aspects in their paper. In their conclusion, the students must state their personal opinion (pro or con) on the topic and briefly explain their position based on their research.

Students pick their topic in the second week of the semester. Besides written directions, I give them a rubric so they will know how I will grade their papers (see below). Grades will be based on content as well as on writing style/correctness, following instructions, and timeliness of the draft and final paper. Their final paper is due near the end of the semester, but I require a draft by mid-semester. The purpose of the draft is to provide general feedback, point out possible plagiarism, and help students manage their time.

This writing assignment seems to meet most of my criteria stated above. Moreover, students often have told me that they enjoyed learning about their topics.

Examples of Topics
  • Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) – should we drill for oil there or not?
  • Nuclear power plants – should we build more or not?
  • Should research using embryonic stem cells be restricted or not?
  • Should ethanol from farm crops be used as a partial substitute for gasoline or not?
  • Should the U.S. try to put humans on Mars or not?
  • Will battery-operated automobiles become a major means of transportation or not?
  • Should wind power be pursued as an alternative energy source or not?
  • Should solar power be pursued as an alternative energy source or not?
  • Is the cost of prescription medicine in the U.S. reasonable or too high?
  • Global warming is caused by human actions – fact or fiction?

To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at fglazer@nyit.edu. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.
Ernest C. Linsay
Director, Faculty Development & Support
Wilmington University
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