The Role of Writing in STEM

A shared value that is central to our work is that scientists and engineers need to be able to write, and that writing is a skill that helps students, faculty, and researchers learn and do engineering and science. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) recognizes the “ability to communicate effectively” as a key student outcome in Applied and Natural Science programs, and our own surveys of faculty and alumni have found that written communication is valued as an essential educational and workplace skill.

Writing in STEM occurs in a variety of contexts and spaces, ranging from emails to documentation and proposals. Throughout our research and mentoring work, we collaborate with STEM faculty to articulate the specific disciplinary concerns linked to writing in each field, such as strategies for incorporating equations in written documents or preparing effective and concise text for an oral presentation.

Starting Points:

  • Consider where writing appears in your course. We’ve found that students are engaged in writing practices not just in term papers, but in writing out rationales that explain their answers in problem sets, in preparing slides for oral presentations, and in updating research documentation in lab notebooks. Which of these writing practices in your course might be expanded, or made more explicit for students?
  • Set goals for your course that relate to writing. For some instructors, this might be centered on a particular kind of scientific document, such as preparing students to write effective lab reports throughout your course. Consider how the existing goals for your course might align with writing practices, and how establishing new goals related to writing practices in your field might guide the creation of new assignments, workshops, or lectures.
  • Observe how you evaluate and frame writing in both formal lectures and informal conversations with your students. How do you present writing as a practice and goal in your field? How might you foreground your thoughts about writing in your syllabi and materials?


Additional Resources:

Amann, K. & Knorr-Cetina K.D. (1988). The fixation of (visual) evidence: Representation in scientific practice. Human Studies, 11(3), pp. 133–169.

Bazerman, C. (1988). Shaping written knowledge: The genre and activity of the experimental article in science, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Blakeslee, A. M. (1997). Activity, context, interaction, and authority: Learning to write scientific papers in situ. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 11(2), 125–169.

Durst, S. (2019). Disciplinarity and literate activity in civil and environmental engineering: A lifeworld perspective. Written Communication, 36(4), pp. 471–502.

Haas, C., & Witte, S. (2001). Writing as an embodied practice: The case of engineering standards. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 15(4), 413-457.

Hanauer, D. I. (2008). Science and the linguistic landscape: A genre analysis of representational wall space in a microbiology laboratory. In E. Shohamy & D. Gorter (Eds.), Linguistic landscape: Expanding the scenery (pp. 287-301). New York, NY: Routledge. 

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.

Lemke, J. L. (1998). Multiplying meaning: Visual and verbal semiotics in scientific text. In J. R. Martin & R. Veel (Eds.), Reading science: Critical and functional perspectives on discourses of science (pp. 87-113). New York, NY: Routledge.

Myers, G. (1990). Writing biology: Texts in the social construction of scientific knowledge. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Prior, P. & Bilbro, R. (2012). Academic enculturation: developing literate practices and disciplinary identities. In M. Castelló and C. Donahue (Eds.), University writing: Selves and texts in academic societies (pp. 19-31). (Studies in Writing Series, Volume 24). Bingley, England: Emerald.

Prior, P. & Shipka J. (2003). Chronotopic lamination: Tracing the contours of literate activity. In C. Bazerman & D.R. Russel (Eds.), Writing selves/writing societies: Research from activity perspectives (pp. 180–238). The WAC Clearinghouse.

Roozen, K. (2019). Coming to act with tables: Tracing the laminated trajectories of an engineer-in-the-making. Learning, Culture, and Social Interaction, 24.

Schimel, J. (2012). Writing science: how to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Wickman, C. (2015). Locating the semiotic power of writing in science. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 29(1), 61–92.

Winsor, D. A. (2013). Writing like an engineer: A rhetorical education. New York, NY: Routledge.