Digital Writing

Digital Writing to Learn Introductory Chemistry and Physics

This project is based on the hypothesis that using digital technology to infuse writing into introductory chemistry and physics courses can enhance student engagement in STEM areas, make STEM areas more attractive to under-represented populations, and foster richer conceptual learning for all students.

Over 50% of students who enter college planning to concentrate in the STEM fields subsequently choose to major in something else, often an area in the social sciences (Hayes et al., 2009; Ohland, 2004). Those who leave STEM areas are often among the most highly qualified students, and they are disproportionately women and minorities (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997; Ohland et al, 2004). Introductory science courses have been identified as one of the major contributing factors to student attrition.

Two factors enable this project to move beyond prior attempts to incorporate writing into large gateway science courses. The first is recent research in writing assessment that has developed quantitative tools that, in combination with qualitative measures, make it possible to evaluate large numbers of student texts (Gere et al, forthcoming; Sheris & Burstein, 2013; Whithaus, 2005). The second is the rapid growth in communication technologies. This exponential growth in college students’ use of communication technologies has occurred—on this campus at least—alongside a significant increase in University support for new media in instructional contexts. It is now possible, in a way that it would not have been even five years ago, to use communication technologies in large classes so that as many as 2000 students can participate in writing-focused pedagogy.

Phase One of this project will focus on a) refining and developing writing prompts that are rhetorically and conceptually complex; b) using quantitative and qualitative tools to develop protocols for analyzing the results of a small-scale writing intervention in introductory chemistry and physics courses; c) beginning the process of identifying communication technologies that can be used to scale-up the intervention for large courses; d) differential effects of this intervention on various student populations.

Project Team:

Anne Gere, Professor and Director of the Sweetland Writing Center, College of LSA Ginger Shultz, Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow, Chemistry Department