21W.036 | Spring 2022 | Undergraduate

Science Writing and New Media: Writing and the Environment


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week; 1.5 hrs / session


None. Reminder: you cannot take 21W.036 for credit if you have already taken or are currently taking another Science Writing and New Media subject.

Course Description

Environmentalists have traditionally relied upon the power of their prose to transform the thoughts and behavior of their contemporaries. In 1963, Rachel Carson, a marine biologist with a penchant for writing, described a world without wildlife in Silent Spring and altered the way Americans understood their impact on the landscape. Like other writers we will encounter this semester, Carson realized that she could alter the perceptions of her contemporaries only if she was able to transmit her knowledge in engaging and accessible language. We will do our best to follow in her footsteps.   

Carson relied on the power of the written word. More recent scientists and their public advocates have explored diverse alternatives to print media in their effort to reach a broader audience. We will examine videos and slide presentations designed to inform and inspire. Over the course of the semester, we will also sample the professional writings of climate scientists, geologists, hydrologists, and biologists.

The writing assignments, like the readings, will invite you to consider the distinctive needs of different audiences: your peers, your (imagined) professional colleagues, and, finally, the broader public. As the range of our readings expands, your writing assignments will require careful critical analysis of selected texts. The final assignments will provide you with the opportunity to review current scholarly research on an environmental issue of your choosing. Students will learn to respond constructively to the work of others and to revise their own work in the light of comments from the instructor and from their peers.


Any number of topics can provide a point of departure for a communications-intensive course. I have chosen this topic in part because I want to demonstrate the key role that written and oral communications play in shaping public debate. As I noted in the course description, environmentalists have traditionally relied upon the power of prose to transform the thoughts and behavior of their contemporaries. The topic has the added virtue of enabling us to encounter a wide variety of genres addressed to an equally wide range of audiences. The diverse readings will help us understand how the needs of the audience influence the language and structure of a particular piece of writing. They will also, I hope, offer a bit of dessert fare for each of you while encouraging all of you to broaden your repertoire of writing skills and strategies.

The writing assignments will begin with those things that you know best—your own experiences and your own opinions—and move toward topics that are less personal and less familiar. If the going gets tough, you can count on the companionship and sympathy of your fellow students. This is a shared enterprise.


All of the readings for this course can be found on our course site. Each one is linked to a specific assignment and date.

Writer’s Handbook: If you do not own a writer’s handbook of some kind, Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) is an excellent resource. 


Class Participation

This is not a classic textbook course. You cannot do the work at the end of the semester and hope to pass this course. More importantly, you cannot hope to alter the way you approach writing if you remain a passive spectator in this class. MIT’s introductory writing courses are designed to help you develop writing strategies that will serve you throughout your career. By the time you reach college, old writing habits are already deeply rooted. Weeding out the unproductive ones requires hard labor. New, improved varieties will only take root if you nurture them. You will find this process more manageable if you take advantage of the experience, insights, and support of your classmates. If all of you participate actively, you can turn a rugged task into a satisfying collaborative venture.

Major Writing Assignments (Revision required): 
  1. Narrative essay (drawing upon personal experience): c. 1500 words.
  2. Critical review (based upon your analysis of two videos and your reading of at least three related articles): 1700–2000 words.
  3. An article designed for Scientific American that provides an update on recent research in a specific field: 2100–2400 words.
Formal Oral Presentation
  • A formal presentation to the class based upon the information that you gather for your Scientific American update: c. 10 minutes

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2022