21W.036 | Spring 2022 | Undergraduate
Science Writing and New Media: Writing and the Environment

Scientific American Update

Imagine that the editors of Scientific American have contacted you and asked you to bring their readers up to date on research on a major environmental issue. The magazine published an article on this topic some time ago, but a lot has happened in the intervening years. The editors are hoping for an article that is both engaging and enlightening.

They know that you have expressed interest in this topic and that you may have personal reasons for pursuing it, so they are willing to give you some latitude in defining the focus for your article. As long as you are able to accomplish your basic mission—to provide an update on recent research—they are open to different approaches.

The first version of the article should be at least 1800 words long. The final version should be between 2000 and 2200 words long. Both versions should include a separate source list, which will be available online for Scientific American readers. As is typical of Scientific American articles, the final version of your update will not include any form of citation, so you will need to acknowledge your sources in the article itself.

This is your chance to educate readers on a vital topic. Help them understand its significance. Make it lively and informative. Highlight the roles of key researchers. Explain technical terms. Double-check your data; the editors do not want any embarrassing mail from readers.

Two Older Scientific American Articles

Select two possible starting points for your Scientific American update and post article titles on course website.

List of older Scientific American (and Nature) articles:

  • “Meltdown in the North” by Sturm, Perovich, & Serreze, SA, Oct. 2003
    • “Sea ice and glaciers are melting, permafrost is thawing, tundra is yielding to shrubs—and scientists are struggling to understand how these changes will affect not just the Arctic but the entire planet.”
  • “Protecting against the Next Katrina” by Mark Fischetti, SA, Nov. 2005
    • “Wetlands mitigate flooding, but are they too damaged in the gulf?”
  • “Dangers of Ocean Acidification” by Scott Doney, SA, March 2006
    • “Much of the carbon dioxide given off from the burning of fossil fuels goes into the ocean, where it changes the acid balance of sea water. The repercussions for marine life may be enormous.”
  • “Fixing the Global Nitrogen Problem” by Alan Townsend & Robert Howarth, SA, Feb. 2010
    • “Humanity depends on nitrogen to fertilize croplands, but growing global use is damaging the environment and threatening human health. How can we chart a more sustainable path?” 
  • “On the Termination of Species” by W. Wayt Gibbs, SA, Nov. 2001
    • “Ecologists’ warnings of an ongoing mass extinction are being challenged by skeptics and largely ignored by politicians. In part that is because it is surprisingly hard to know the dimensions of the die-off, why it matters, and how it can best be stopped.”
  • “Spring Forward” by Daniel Grossman, SA, January 2004
    • “As temperatures rise sooner in spring, interdependent species in many ecosystems are shifting dangerously out of sync.”
  • “Invasive Species: Shoot to Kill” by Emma Marris, Nature (news feature) Nov. 2005
    • “The US government has adopted a tough approach to battling harmful exotic plants: specialist strike teams. But can they prevail? Emma Marris finds out it’s not all black and white.”
  • “Burning Questions” by Douglas Gantenbein, SA, November 2002
    • “Scientists work to understand and control the plague of wildfires in the West.”
  • “Predicting Wildfires” by Patricia Andrews, Mark Finney, and Mark Fischetti, SA, Aug. 2007
    • “Fires are burning more acres than ever. Where will the next blazes ignite? Can we prevent them? Should we?
  • “High Hopes for Hydrogen” by Joan Ogden, SA, Sept. 2006
    • “Using hydrogen to fuel cars may eventually slash oil consumption and carbon emissions, but it will take some time.”
  • “Fueling our Transportation Future” by John B. Heywood, SA, Sept. 2006
    • “What are the options for decreasing demand for oil and lowering greenhouse gas emissions in cars and light trucks?” 
  • “How Green are Green Plastics?” by Tillman Gerngross and Steven Slater, SA, Aug. 2000
    • “It is now technologically possible to make plastics using green plants rather than nonrenewable fossil fuels. But are these new plastics the environmental saviors researchers have hoped for?” 
  • “The False Promise of Biofuels” by David Biello, SA, Aug. 2011
    • “The breakthroughs needed to replace oil with plant-based fuels are proving difficult to achieve.” 
  • “The Power of Renewables” by Matthew L. Wald, SA, March 2009
    • “The need to tackle global climate change and energy security makes developing alternatives to fossil fuels crucial. Here is how they stack up.” (For your update, you should focus on one alternative.)
  • “Methane: A Menace Surfaces” by Katey Walter Anthony, SA, Dec. 2009
    • “Arctic permafrost is already thawing, creating lakes that emit methane. the heat-trapping gas could dramatically accelerate global warming. How big is the threat? What can be done?”

Two-Paragraph Summary

Two-paragraph summary of the older article that will provide the point of departure for your Scientific American update.

Preliminary Research

Two-paragraph summary of the older article that will provide the point of departure for your Scientific American update.


Your proposal should indicate the scope of your planned article.

  • How much and what kind of material will you cover?
  • What do you see as the key takeaway from your article?

The proposal should also identify/describe the basic strategy you plan to pursue.

  • How will you organize and present your material?

Tell us as much as you can about your plans for the article.

Your proposal should be at least 150 words long. If your thinking has evolved further, feel free to cover more ground and write as much as 300 words. 

First Version

The first version of your Scientific American update will look different from the final version in key ways. It should include MLA in-text citations (with page #s) or APA in-text citations (with dates), and it must include a final works cited/references list!

As usual, this 1st version should be accompanied by a letter to your readers.

Peer Review #3

Earlier this semester, I provided detailed guidelines for your comments on your partners’ narrative essays and critical reviews. This time around, you can respond more directly to the distinctive issues that you see in each paper. At the same time, you should keep in mind the importance of providing both small-scale and large-scale feedback. The hardest task for an editor is to step back from the specifics and identify broad patterns. I have listed below some of the features that you should consider as you write up your comments for your workshop partners.

In this case, as with the narrative essay and the critical review, you should not focus on the syntax of individual sentences. I will continue to provide each writer with detailed comments on mechanics.

Be sure to consider the following features of each Scientific American update: 

  • The effectiveness of the introduction in fulfilling its many functions
  • The continuity of the discussion and overall coherence of the article
  • The use of examples and evidence
  • The liveliness of the article
  • The internal logic and explicit divisions within the article
  • The tone of the article
  • The match between the content of the article and the audience of the article
  • The conclusion

Your completed comments for each of your partners should be at least 500 words long. Be sure to break up your comments into meaningful units—either paragraphs or bullet points.

Revised Version

The final version of your Scientific American update should look very much like the Scientific American article “Down Go the Dams” by Jane Marks. It should include a list of sources at the end (described as “Further Reading”). Since Jane Marks is herself a prominent researcher in this field, she draws heavily on her own studies.

  • Since you will be describing the work of other scientists, you should identify key researchers and major sources in the body of your article, but you should not include footnotes or in-text citations.
  • You should refer explicitly to the earlier Scientific American article on your topic.
  • Your finished article may include images, but the text takes priority.

Oral Presentation Assignment with Slides

Plan carefully an 8–10 minutes oral presentation based on your research for the Scientific American update. You must incorporate slides, but the exact number of slides is up to you. You should not assume that your listeners have any previous knowledge of your subject, so you may want to go back over material covered by the earlier Scientific American article. Your slides should have captions that identify the 
original source. After the presentation, you should post your slides on the course site.

Be sure to rehearse your presentation so that you are comfortable managing your slides and can accurately predict the duration of your talk. Figure out the logistics before you have a real audience.

Your listeners will have a chance to write up comments based on the guidelines listed below:

  1. Describe in detail one slide that you found particularly effective
    • Briefly explain your reasoning.
  2. Comment on the overall impact of slides used by this speaker.
    • Briefly explain your reasoning.
  3. Comment on number of slides shown during the presentation—too 
    many, too few, just right?
    • Briefly explain your reasoning.
  4. Each of our presenters will have to make many more oral 
    presentations while at MIT. 
    • Would you suggest any changes in speaking style?
Course Info
As Taught In
Spring 2022