5 Simple Strategies to Incorporate STEM Writing

By Stephanie Knight
Dr. Knight is an experienced seventh and eighth grade English language arts educator. She taught in Title I schools and an independent school for more than a decade. Part of Grand Canyon University’s faculty, she teaches graduate-level education and reading courses.

When we visualize what a scientist or a mathematician looks like, we rarely see a pen in hand composing a report or writing an essay. No, we think of the more glamorous side of conducting experiments and solving intricate mathematical problems.

However, writing is a tool to make thinking more lucid. Think about it: to be able to put words onto paper, we must extract information and then be able to portray its meaning clearly. Carly Fiorina (former executive of Hewlett Packard) sums it up: “The goal is to transform data into information and information into insight” (Hewlett-Packard Development Company, 2004, para. 11). Can scientists or mathematicians be considered successful with their theories if they have solved a complex problem yet cannot elucidate and interpret the solution in words?

This is why writing must be a significant part of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum. In fact, it should accompany every assignment or problem. Not only does it make students career ready, since writing is a big part of most professions, but it also helps them organize their thoughts and clarify their thinking.

STEM Writing Cements Learning
“How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” (E. M. Forester)

More than 40 years ago, Emig (1977) made a powerful case for the connection of writing to learning. She noted that, by its very nature, writing simultaneously engages the hand, eye, and brain. The writing process also uses both sides of the brain, according to Emig‘s research. If the most effective learning happens with reinforcement and the use of the left and right brain hemispheres, then writing, through its innate reinforcing circle utilizing hand, eye, and brain, is a powerful tool for learning (Knight, 2010).

Writing also gets students career ready, as the standards are now reflecting. If STEM education pursuits are to be successful in our schools, we must be training our students to be armed and ready for their futures with excellent writing abilities.

Five Ways to Incorporate STEM Writing
All students should have a journal to house their work and process thinking. This also makes grading simple if students leave their journals on their desks for quick checks.

Here are some effective writing-to-learn activities to incorporate into math and science classes.
  • In math, have the students fold the paper in half, doing the work on one side and explaining the process on the other. This easy strategy doesn’t require extra materials. Also, they can identify their mistakes as they write out their response.

  • Before students solve a problem, have them write out their process of solving. This is a great tool for formatively assessing students, because you can see how a student mindfully processes a problem. You can then modify your lessons based on this assessment.

  • You can easily transfer to science an approach used in English language arts (ELA). Often, students must write argumentative papers in ELA. They usually begin with their opinion in the thesis and, throughout the body, give their reasons and explanations as support. In science class, have them write paragraphs with the same type of formula: Claim, Evidence, Reason. This equates to easy grading for the science teachers (since this is a big bugaboo with non-ELA educators), and students can identify if their thinking is clear and concise.

  • Utilize think pads before pair-sharing. After you have taught for a few minutes, pose a question. Instead of having students answer orally, have them write their answer on a small pad of paper (students can have this at their desks). Then, have them share their written response with their partner. Writing out their thoughts forces them to process more clearly.

  • Incorporate writing into any activity requiring problem solving. Give students a choice of four ways they must prove their work. They can give a definition, share a rule, sketch a picture, or write out their work. Students also can be paired up and share these responses to make sure they can speak through what they wrote. This is a nice addition to make sure their thinking is clear.

The demand for skilled workers in science, technology, engineering, and math continues to grow. To remain globally competitive, we must enrich our STEM curriculum with writing in every aspect of the day. It not only creates, enhances, and empowers critically clear thinking, it gives our students confidence to be career ready.
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Emig, J. (1977). Writing as a mode of learning. College Composition and Communication, 28(2), 122–128.

Hewlett-Packard Development Company. (2004, December). Information: The currency of the digital age. Speech by Carly Fiorina at Oracle OpenWorld, San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from http://www.hp.com/hpinfo/execteam/speeches/fiorina/04openworld.html

Knight, S. (2010). Because writing counts! Discovering the perceptions of middle school content teachers about writing in their classrooms (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. (3410643)