Assignment 3: A Researched Science Essay for the General Public

Due: Three days after Session 14

Length: ~2250 words (~9-10 pages)

For this assignment, you will write about some aspect of science, engineering, mathematics, or technology for a general audience. Through this assignment, you will gain experience in:

  • Researching a topic through a variety of published (and other) sources (more about this below); and
  • Presenting a relatively specialized and technical subject in a way that is accessible, informative, and engaging to a general audience.

Picking a Topic

Your first task will be to find a topic that interests you, and that you think could be the basis for an intriguing and informative essay for people who have little or no previous acquaintance with this subject. If you are involved with an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Group (UROP), you could write about something related to that. However, there are endless other possibilities. Another suggestion for finding a topic would be to browse the website of a department you’re interested in and check the links to research labs and groups in that department. Read about the research that’s going on in those labs and groups until you find something that especially interests you.

Shaping Your Topic: Defining Your Focus, Purpose, and Audience

Next, you will need to consider the specific focus, purpose, and target audience of your essay. What aspect of the topic do you want to concentrate on? Is that compatible with the length of the piece? Why do you want to write about this? What do you want the reader to “take away” from your essay? Who do you envision as your readers? Are your topic and purpose suitable for the audience? Remember that the notion of a “general audience” should be viewed as a continuum: some “general audiences” are more “general” than others! Although they may overlap, the audience of Discover magazine is not the same as the audience of Technology Review. Where would you imagine your essay appearing? What assumptions will you be making about your readers? Will you be writing for a very general audience or a more narrowly defined general audience?

You should not approach this as a general “report” on some aspect of science or technology. The essay should reflect your own ideas about what aspects of a scientific topic are interesting and likely to appeal to your audience, and about how to present that information in a way that your readers will find interesting, engaging, and informative. Two essays on a similar topic could be very different in their scope, focus, purpose, and style, for example.

Researching Your Topic

With these preliminary ideas about your essay, you will be ready to begin researching your topic. One way to do this is to search for a variety of articles on your topic. Another valuable source of information might be a person here at MIT who is involved in research in the area you’re writing about. You could go and visit a lab or group that is carrying out that research and talk with someone who’s involved in the work. You may find that your initial ideas about the focus and purpose of the essay will undergo some changes and refinement as you research your topic.

Style and Format

Decisions about the conceptual structure, style, and formatting of the essay are largely left to you as the writer. (*But note the guidelines for basic formatting below.) You can choose, for example, whether to use section headings to highlight main ideas and distinct sections of the essay. You can also decide whether to include illustrations.

The essay should be formatted using a standard 12 pt. font (for the main text), 1.5 or double-spacing, and standard margins (~1 inch).

Using and Citing Sources

You can use either of two citation styles that are most common in scientific and technical academic writing. These include an in-text parenthetical author-date citation style or a number-indexing style. Each of these systems of citation will be covered in class, so there is no expectation that you are already familiar with them. We will also discuss how to incorporate source material into your own work and principles for when to cite sources.

The essay must include a Bibliography of sources cited in the text. You can also include a list of Additional Sources or Recommended Readings for your audience.

Example Science Essays

Fukushima and the Bogey-man” - Rosie Sugrue

Who’s Better and Who’s the Best?” - Keren Gu

The Origin of Mass” - Sam Moore

Modular Self-Configurable Robots” - Vincent Kee

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2017
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples