Monday, May 16, 2016

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ESL Writing for STEM 4 - Lab Reports

Lab reports

One of the purposes in delving into STEM writing in the first place was that one of the engineering professors at our university expressed frustration at international students not being able to adequately write lab reports. As a starting point, I gave students a very basic format consisting of introduction, experimental procedure, and results. They did two brief activities using this format. The first activity involved watching a short Youtube video of a man doing an experiment to determine how much sugar is actually in a can of soda pop. The second activity was a set of lab notes I had written up, based on a fictitious experiment to test the effectiveness of three types of hand-sanitizers. The notes included the research question, materials, brief notes on the procedure, and the results, including photos of the bacteria growth in petri dishes. The students were then able to utilize the information from the notes and what they observed from the images to draw conclusions on the most effect product. Together, these two smaller writing assignments worked well to provide my English language learners a more authentic context to describe a process and discuss the results. This also provided the groundwork for them to conduct and write about their own hands-on lab.

Planning a lab for English language learners can be challenging to due restraints in facilities, equipment, and technical know-how. Because I needed something for them to do in the classroom, I fell back on an old standby: the absorbency of diapers. From experience, I knew that students always enjoyed the process of extracting the tiny granules from a diaper and watching them expand to absorb a large quantity of dyed water. But this time, I wanted to expand the activity to compare three brands of diapers. In pairs, I had the students take one diaper from each brand—Pampers, Huggies, and Target (generic)—and first record the qualitative data on each, including softness and elasticity, as well as measure the dimensions and cost per diaper. Then, they measured the absorbency by pouring dyed water into each and recording the amount at saturation. This provided an engaging hands-on activity on which to base their paper.

In a multi-draft formal report, students included an introduction on the purpose of this experiment. The second section was a description of each diaper, based on their notes, and the third section described in detail—and using the passive voice, where possible—the procedure used to measure the absorbency. Here is an example from one student:
Once the measurement and observation were taken, each edge of diaper were cut to extract its granules which is found on the padding of the diaper. After extracting the granules, they were poured into a plastic cup. Then, colored water, which is used to give better visibility in absorbency, was added until the material was saturated. Eventually, the capacity of the water that was observed was recorded.
This student was able to effectively utilize the passive voice in describing the process.

Finally, the conclusion of their report gave a recommendation of which brand was the best buy overall.

Benefits and Challenges

In the course of the semester, my students had learned how to effectively describe a process, work that process into a simple lab report, and then move into a more developed full-length paper. A major benefit included the fact that STEM topics naturally provide good opportunities to use the grammar structures learned in class—sentence combining, transitions, and the passive voice. These topics also seemed to be engaging, since they are academic in nature and students can see the benefit of these writing tasks. The real challenge, on the other hand, was coming up with prompts that are STEM-based but did not require extensive background knowledge or research. Another issue that arises is the problem with plagiarism. Given the technical nature of these topics, students are much more inclined to take explanations and definitions from the Internet without appropriately citation. Still, using STEM topics and tasks in writing has been worthwhile, even though in some ways it targets lower on Bloom’s (1954) taxonomy of critical thinking.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.