ENGL 416 teaches all majors how to make science information accessible

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In an era when science denial affects everything from sustainability policy to health care, engaging science communication is increasingly a necessary counter that can provide voters and politicians with dependable information. Scientists need help communicating not only to inform the public about new research but also to invest people in advocating for societal action based on that research. Voters need reliable sources to break down complex topics in a way everyone can understand and use as the basis to form educated opinions. 

Students in ENGL 416 visited Dr. Jonathan Lynch and Dr. Kathleen Brown's DEEPER lab in the College of Agriculture that uses this imaging device to construct 3D images of corn roots. ENGL 416 students construct engaging science writing stories around Penn State research like this, learning how to make science accessible to broader audiences and how to engage diverse audiences in policy discussions that are based on scientific research. Credit: Halina DingoAll Rights Reserved.

Thanks to Paul Kellermann’s English 416 class, Science Writing, Penn State students are learning to meet this pressing communication need, finding the story within the science to engage, educate and inspire readers.

“Living in an era that’s rife with denial, science writing often must do more than simply report the science,” explained Kellermann, teaching professor of English. “Ideally, science writers should serve as de facto gatekeepers, guiding the attention of policymakers and the public.”

ENGL 416 aims to prepare both young writers and scientists to write engaging pieces on all branches of science, from medicine to chemistry to psychology. Students in the class read examples from reputable science writers, try their hand at translating research papers into attention-grabbing news articles and partner with researchers across Penn State to investigate and write about their work.

“Our group spoke to Dr. (Amrita) Basak from the College of Engineering,” said Ryan Hatfield, an English and Telecommunications graduate and current student in the Creative Writing B.A./M.A. program. “She was so full of personality and described 3-D printing metal alloys through some great cooking metaphors. Who knew making the engine to an airplane was like making Grandma’s beef stew?”

During her time in ENGL 416, Pratiti Roy, a 2018 graduate in biochemistry and molecular biology, wrote about the research of Kelli Hoover on Asian longhorned beetles. “I was a senior when I took this class, and the monotony of my coursework and lab work had really worn down my enthusiasm for science,” said Roy. “Writing the article and being able to talk to so many scientists and see their labs reignited my passion for science. Probably the absolute coolest thing I did was go down to the basement of the Agriculture Science and Industries Building and see the Hoover Lab’s Asian longhorn beetle quarantine.” 

Not only did Roy find her time in the class both enjoyable and stimulating, but she has also found some of the concepts she learned applicable to her current graduate work in the College of Medicine.

“As a medical student, I’m learning a lot of nitty-gritty details, but a patient doesn’t necessarily need to know all that,” she said. “Every patient encounter involves making the same decisions a science writer needs to make: first, I have to decide how much of the information in my arsenal is actually relevant to my audience (in my case, the patient) and, second, I have to come up with a way to communicate that information in a way that makes sense to a person who doesn’t have the background knowledge I do.”

Just as science writing can be useful for those in the medical field, it also can play a significant role helping those working on one of the most pressing issues facing our planet: sustainability. Effective science writing can be a tool for mitigating climate denial and informing potential voters what individual, social, and global actions can affect change. 

“Typically, we speak of sustainability in terms of goals — more specifically, Sustainable Development Goals,” said Kellermann. “The science writer should strive to give concrete form to such goals. How do we achieve them? What steps must we take? What steps have been taken? The science writer can slice off a small piece of a larger issue to show how individual actions can contribute towards attaining a larger goal.”

The class highlights examples of effective climate change communication in the course’s required readings. One of them, "The Madhouse Effect," tackles climate change through a collaboration between Penn State’s Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science, and a cartoonist. It uses clever language to explain climate change and funny cartoons to emphasize its points for people who want to learn about climate change or who don’t know how to respond to climate change arguments effectively.

“In a time where there is so much doubt cast upon science, it is critical that science writing remains accessible to as many people as possible,” said Hatfield. “By finding the stories in scientific discovery and development, and communicating them through down-to-earth language, people get a better sense of how these important concepts work.”

Many students have found the class to be especially useful in honing their writing skills for complex and sometimes controversial topics by focusing on forming a narrative around the science, either by profiling an interesting researcher or connecting the research in the story to broader problems. 

“My assumption going into the class was that I would be learning to translate technical jargon for layman readers,” said Krish Shethia, 2019 graduate in industrial engineering with an English minor. “I quickly learned that the digestibility of information, especially complex information, does not depend on how easy it is to understand, but instead depends on the story that carries it. If you can find the story and tell it well, then you’ll capture people’s attention - whether the story is about teddy bears or rocket science won’t matter.” 

“My favorite thing that we explored was approaching a scientific narrative as fiction. We talked about the article ‘Mrs. Kelly’s Monster’ and the engaging effect of relating the science as a story,” said Jesse Evans, a 2019 graduate in wildlife and fisheries science. “I enjoyed this lesson a lot because it taught an alternative direction to translating and relaying science. Science writing doesn’t have to be a genre; it could be a method you use in other genres.”

Whether students are aspiring journalists or scientists, ENGL 416 has provided engaging lessons that can be taken into any field. 

“It was a joy to attend,” concluded Julia Murray, a 2020 graduate in wildlife and fisheries science. “I can count on one hand the courses I actively looked forward to attending, and science writing was among them.”

“Now that COVID is slowly ending, I’ve seen people out in the real world who’ve taken this class and I finally get to talk to them face-to-face about how much we’ve enjoyed this class,” said Hatfield. “I couldn’t thank Paul enough for being such an important instructor. One of the best Penn State has to offer.”

Last Updated August 11, 2021