Preparing Bioscience Undergraduates to Write and Speak Biology

Bioscience graduates at Rice may pursue careers in medicine, patent law, or biological research. They may become product managers, environmental consultants, pharmaceutical representatives, technical writers, or biotech entrepreneurs. Their education in finding and evaluating sources, critical thinking and analysis, and designing and executing experimental protocols prepares them for a multitude of careers.

In our small group, we aren’t afraid to share our ideas or questions. This allows for more free thought and open discussion, which is always more engaging and exciting.

-Halle Rasmussen, a member of the BIOS 201 discussion group, the cDNA Librarians.

Integrating Communication in BIOS 202: 1999–2001
In 1999, faculty in Biochemistry & Cell Biology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology considered graduates’needs. Although the curriculum strongly emphasized mastery of scientific concepts and technical proficiency, the students had only a handful of opportunities for scientific writing, most of them occurring in sophomore- through senior-level labs. The departments collaborated with the Cain Project to introduce writing into the beginning of most bioscience majors’ Rice experience: the yearlong course BIOS 201/202: Introductory Biology.

In Introductory Biology, which enrolls approximately 150 per semester, students read about related research and summarize the research in short reports. To manage the large number of writers and papers involved, the Cain Project trains and supervises a team of talented upper-class BIOS Writing Mentors. Writing Mentors participate in eight hours of rigorous training that helps them prepare for mentoring students and assessing papers. The mentors meet one-on-one with students to help them locate sources, identify articles’ main points, structure arguments, improve style, and meet the needs of specific audiences.

When the extra-credit writing assignments were first introduced to BIOS 202 in 1999, newspapers could be used as sources. As students demonstrated their depth of learning about cutting-edge research, faculty began to realize the value of the exercise. The extra-credit papers became required and newspapers could no longer be used as sources—students were expected to find and read primary journal articles. With the help of BIOS Writing Mentors, students began to read, understand, and communicate the scientific literature. It was only a matter of time before writing would make its way into the fall semester of Introductory Biology, BIOS 201.
Writing to Learn in BIOS 201: 2002–2004

In 2002, Dr. Mike Gustin introduced two writing assignments into his fall course. Students read articles on a molecular aspect of a human disease and wrote summaries to two carefully defined audiences—first physicians treating patients with the disease, then grandparents with no background in biology. The assignments were valuable

The student-led BIOS 201 discussion groups in action during the Fall 2006 semester.


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