21W.777 | Spring 2017 | Undergraduate

Science Writing in Contemporary Society


Assignments 8-15

Assignment #8 - Due Session 9

  1. Read: Michael Specter’s recent New Yorker article “Rewriting the Code of Life,” which lays out the potential benefits and risks of DNA editing while profiling researcher Kevin Esvelt. Specter has written several articles on public perceptions of science for the magazine, including one on genetically modified mosquitoes.
  2. For class discussion: This article raises many profound issues. What do you see as Specter’s purpose and strategy in putting the article together? What do you take away from the article, as a writer and as a citizen? What does the article do well? What questions does it leave you with?
  3. Journals: If you haven’t already done so, please upload your journal entries on the class website. You may upload them as one document, so long as it’s clear where one entry ends and the next begins. Each entry should be dated.

Assignment #9 - Due Session 10

  1. Read: Session 9 readings

For class discussion: Both articles give us a lot to think about. Gladwell’s article is especially interesting for the way it’s structured and the conclusions he draws. Toness’s interests me for the way it addresses issues of education. What do you—as MIT undergraduates—make of her argument?

Looking ahead: The day after Session 11 is the due date for the revised proposal of your Investigative Essay. It will include an Annotated Bibliography—i.e., the best 5-6 sources you’ll have identified at that point and how you expect these sources to be useful.

Assignment #10a - Due Session 11

  1. Read: Session 10 readings (introduces concepts with which to frame discussions of issues related to public understanding of science)

For class discussion: Each of these readings builds a discussion around 1 key concept (for “Unhappy Meals,” focus on “nutritionism”). Consider these concepts and what they allow the writers to do. How do they help structure an argument? Where do these concepts come from—i.e., are they science terms?

Whether or not you choose to write a journal article in response to these readings, jot some notes on them. The writers, I think, invite you to make connections beyond the specifics of the essay.

We’ll also discuss the writing, especially at the sentence level.

Assignment #10b - Revised Proposal for the Investigative Essay, including Annotated Bibliography - Due the day after Session 11

For your revised proposal:

Re-state your main Inquiry Question (that’s a question—not a thesis), and write a short paragraph stating what you hope to learn by your researching and writing.

Number and kinds of sources needed:

  • There is no “best” number of sources, but you will probably refer to a minimum of 6-8 sources in this essay. Note that you will consult more sources than you will ultimately use; that’s part of the process.
  • Your sources should include at least 1-2 books, and if possible, 1-2 journal articles.
  • Remember that The New York Times and/or general interest science magazines (New Scientist, Scientific American, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.) can provide useful context for most of your topics. They can be sources, too.

For the Annotated Bibliography, make a list of your six best sources thus far, including:

  • ≥2 books
  • ≥1 journal article
  1. List sources thus:

For Books:

Smith, Perry. A Short History of The Cosmos. NY: Utopia Press, 2001.

For articles from an anthology, a journal, a magazine or newspaper:

Chang, Judy. “Sleep and Depression.” The New Mental Health Reader. Boston: Utopia Press, 2010.

For sources from the Web:

Author, title, condensed URL, and date accessed.

  1. And then:

Describe each source in a sentence, followed by 1-2 sentences that tell why this source will be useful for your project. NOTE: This is the “annotation” part of the assignment. You will not get credit for the assignment without annotation.

Assignment #11 - Due Session 12

  1. Read: Session 11 readings

For class discussion: With “Microbes,” I’m especially interested in thinking about the presumed audience for Popular Science, and how Patel reaches them. Re: the writing itself, I like the way she integrates facts into her discussion—so let’s look at that, as well as whatever interests you.

“Deadly Contact" appeared well before the latest Ebola outbreak, but clearly is intended to contextualize such outbreaks with in a way that news stories can’t do. It might be useful to think about this essay in terms of audience, too—what do we assume about readers of National Geographic? Why might this article, which takes an atypical approach to discussing scary viral diseases, appeal especially to such an audience?

Assignment #12 - Essay 2: Investigative Essay - Due the day prior to Session 14

8-10 p. double-spaced (~2500 words)

Write an essay that investigates an aspect of science, medicine, nature or technology of your choosing. This essay should not merely inform and explain but should aim to answer a question that motivates the essay. It should situate the topic in a context, and make it clear to readers why the question matters. Readers will expect to hear your own thoughts on your question.

Further assignment details

  • Pre-writing for your Investigative Essay
  • Think of your essay as being like the ones we’ve read from the New Yorker or the Best American Essays. That is, they will have many elements of a feature article, but also include a POV. It may or may not have a thesis statement, but readers should be able to infer one even if it is not explicitly stated. It may explicitly ask a question, but even if it doesn’t, it should be clear what question your essay aims to answer.
  • You may use “I” in this essay, and may refer to personal experience and/or observations.
  • You may wish to imagine a particular magazine, newspaper or website as the place (with its typical audience) you would like to publish your essay. If you do so, include that in your proposal and also note it at the top of your draft, under your name/date/word count.
  • As with our other assignments, the tone is yours to choose.
  • Note: this essay does not have to directly address the “meta” issues of science writing that we have discussed in class. It may do so, but it may also (just) be a straightforward essay.


  • In addition to your essay’s title, include a subheading (like the New Yorker articles we read—essentially, a sentence that sums up the essay).
  • Also use 3-4 section headings. These should help you with your essay’s structure, in addition to helping to keep readers oriented to your line of thought.


Plan to read each other’s drafts before class on Session 14, and to come with at least 3 questions for the writer. Also note places that have energy & work well, gaps in background, context or questions of fact, etc.

Assignment #13

Prepare for Session 14 Workshop.

Assignment #14a - Due the day after Session 15

Write 2-3 paragraphs of response to classmates’ drafts, focusing on issues such as structure (including sequence, transitions, section headings), tone, appropriateness of sources, clarity of argument, making what’s at stake clear to readers… Also note what’s working well, what’s interesting, and sentence-level issues—images and metaphors (what’s working, what could perhaps be added), effective language, pacing. Don’t respond in a checklist; focus on a handful of issues that seem most pertinent to you.

Assignment #14b - Due Session 15

  1. READ “The Dilbit Disaster.” This article is noteworthy for a few reasons: it appeared in the early days of InsideClimate News, a web source dedicated to climate and energy issues; it won a Pulitzer Prize, the first one awarded for investigative reporting by a purely web source; and one of the co-authors of the series is Lisa Song, an alumna of MIT both as an undergrad and grad student in the Graduate Program in Science Writing.

For class discussion: Keeping in mind that this is the first article in a series (you are welcome to read more!), what do you notice about it? What’s the purpose, the takeaway, of the article? What does the online environment allow? What does the article do well? Does it raise any questions for you—either about science writing, or about the Dilbit issue?

Assignment #15

No deliverables: Begin preparing for your oral presentation. Work on revision of your Investigative Essay.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2017
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments