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WNPR's Patrick Skahill Speaks at Science Writing Conference

Loomis Chaffee Writing Initiatives faculty welcomed 50 colleagues from other independent schools on February 1, for "Writing in the Sciences: In the Classroom and On the Air," a one-day conference that shared best practices for teaching writing to students in science classes and practical advice for engaging wide audiences on science-related topics.

The conference, sponsored by the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools, included a panel discussion among Loomis Science Department teachers Erica Gerace, Clare Parker Fischer, and Scott MacClintic '82 about teaching writing in science classes.

The keynote speaker was Patrick Skahill, a science reporter on WNPR, Connecticut's National Public Radio-affiliated radio station. Mr. Skahill also writes for The Beaker, WNPR's science blog.

Mr. Skahill's after-dinner presentation featured several sound clips from science stories that were broadcast recently on NPR, and he highlighted some of the specific challenges of writing science stories for a radio audience.

"Science writing can be boring," Mr. Skahill acknowledged at the start of his talk. While radio broadcasts are meant to inform, he said, providing entertainment is also an important goal. He discussed elements that reporters use when writing good radio stories and shared several examples.

"Take the listener on a journey," he advised, and focus on the characters' actions in the story, with music and other background noise supporting the action. A writer also should consider the audience's knowledge base and to try to break down complex concepts into "digestible" pieces, he said."Imagine you are explaining the story to a friend across the table," he offered.

During the panel discussion, Erica spoke about an educational trend of directing students to write in the first-person, active voice, rather than third-person, passive voice when writing about science. Based on her experience teaching at the university and high school levels, she said this shift continues to develop students' writing skills across the curricula. Writing in a clear and concise way also helps students better understand the subject matter, she said. Erica, who has a doctorate in cell and developmental biology from Harvard University and taught at Georgetown University before coming to Loomis, teaches college-level biology electives and runs the Science Department's Guided Research program.

Clare focused her panel presentation on writing good sentences in the context of science subject matter. When writing about science, she said, students should write in clear, precise language; focus on actors and actions; and highlight what is most interesting about the content. A writer should steer away from vague and abstract writing, she said. She advised using nouns that refer to actions rather than abstract concepts, write in the active voice, and avoid jargon and other "academic sounding" writing styles. Clare, who has a doctorate in physiological ecology from Tufts University and served as a Tufts Graduate Institute teaching fellow before joining the Loomis faculty, teaches advanced chemistry and advanced biology.

Scott shared several examples of lessons he has used that promote the use of first-person, active voice in writing about science. In one example, students wrote a letter to a hypothetical doctor about findings from research they had completed in the lab and informed the doctor's course of action with a patient. In the scenario, the students were challenged to communicate effectively with an end-user about their research and to write persuasively using convincing evidence. The assignment also helped students practice writing a business letter, reinforcing basic writing skills. Scott suggested that teachers get involved in the writing process with students from the beginning of the assignment, giving useful feedback along the way, for better writing outcomes. A longtime faculty member at Loomis, Scott has a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Trinity College, and teaches microbiology and molecular biology. He is director of the Kravis Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and the Pearse Hub for Innovation.

For more about writing at Loomis, connect to the Writing Initiatives page of the school website.