21W.777 | Spring 2009 | Undergraduate

The Science Essay


Far more than a collection of facts, science is a body of ideas that forms the cultural context through which we view the world.
—K. C. Cole

Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

The science essay uses science to think about the human condition; it uses humanistic thinking to reflect on the possibilities and limits of science and technology. In this class we read and practice writing science essays of varied lengths and purposes. We will read a wide variety of science essays, ranging across disciplines, both to learn more about this genre and to inspire your own writing. This semester’s reading centers on “The Dark Side,” with essays ranging from Alan Lightman’s “Prisoner of the Wired World” through Robin Marantz Henig’s cautionary account of nano-technology (“Our Silver-Coated Future”) to David Quammen’s investigation of diseases that jump from animals to humans (“Deadly Contact”).

Course Requirements

Required Textbook

Groopman, Jerome, and Tim Folger. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008. Boston, MA: Mariner Books, 2008. ISBN: 9780618834471.

Hancock, Elise. Ideas into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. ISBN: 9780801873300. [Preview a Version in Google Books.]

I also strongly urge you to purchase a good college dictionary, if you do not already own one. By that I mean, not a pocket dictionary! If English is not your first language, you will need at least two good dictionaries. If you are really interested in good usage, also consider purchasing a dictionary of usage.


Writers will have wide latitude in choosing topics for the five essay assignments. The class will be run seminar style, with lots of attention to individual writers. Revision of essays and workshop review of writing in progress are an important part of the class. To fulfill the oral presentation component of the class, each student will lead class discussion on one of our readings.

All essays (except essay 1, a warm-up piece) will be revised once; essay 5 (the long essay) and one other essay of your choice will be polished further.

Essay assignments will be detailed in a separate document. Here’s a brief overview:

  • Essay 1 is a 2-page reading response to get your writing muscles warmed up.
  • Essay 2, “Home Science,” is a 3-page essay on the science of something you encounter every day, explained for the layperson.
  • Essay 3 gives you a choice: either “Life/Science,” an essay that grows out of your own experience, or an essay that focuses on the social impact of some aspect of science or technology on society (5 pages).
  • Essay 4 is a review of a book chosen from the list I will provide you (4-5 pages).
  • Essay 5 will be a longer essay (10-12 pages) on a topic of your choosing.
  • Oral presentations: you’ll make short, informal presentations proposing topics for essays 3-5. Each student will also lead class discussion of one of our readings.

Course Policies


This class is structured more as a workshop than a lecture class. Your responsibility in the class is not only to be a writer, but also to read and respond to classmates’ work and to participate in discussions. Therefore, attendance is important.

  • If you miss more than two classes for any reason, you risk getting a lower grade.
  • If you miss a Workshop class, it will count as two absences.
  • With five unexcused absences you will be withdrawn from the class.


Lateness is discourteous to your classmates and to your professor. Your grade for class participation will suffer if you are habitually late. Being more than 10 minutes late 3 times = 1 absence.


To participate in class discussions, you must read assignments on time. It is also imperative that you bring a draft to class on workshop days, and be prepared for oral presentations. Deadlines for revisions will be more flexible.


You are required to have one conference with me, but I encourage more. Bring specific questions about your writing, such as how to make an introduction more vivid or how to connect the ideas in your essay. You are also welcome to use conference time to continue discussions begun in class or try out ideas for essays.


There are no tests in this class.

The quality of your writing will be the primary criterion for your semester grade. I’ll also take into consideration effort and improvement, especially as demonstrated by revision, and class participation, including your participation in workshops and your oral presentations. Note that revision does not mean correcting errors nor simply polishing prose; it means re-seeing the entirety of your essay.

What do letter grades mean? “A” work is so accomplished in skill, substance and style that it would delight an editor. “B” work is good, solid work. “C” work is satisfactory but with little to recommend it. “D” work meets the requirements of the course by the skin of its teeth and by the reader’s open-hearted charity. “F” is reserved for work that does not satisfy the requirements of the course. Oral presentations will not receive letter grades but will be marked √(OK), √+ (very good) or √- (weak) based on preparation, cogency and coherence.

Essay 2 15%
Essays 3 and 4 (20% each) 40%
Essay 5 25%
Essay 1, class participation, oral presentations 20%

MIT Literature Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available at the Writing and Communication Center and the MIT Web site on Plagiarism.




Course overview

What is a “science essay”?


Audience: grabbing the reader

Literary techniques: scenes, imagery, characters

Voice and tone

Science and life - the “non-quantifiable

Homework 1 due


The writer as a “character” in his essay

Are we prisoners of the wired world?

Homework 2 due
4 Workshop essay 1 Homework 3 due

Comment on essay 1

Discuss essay 2, “Home Science”

Examples: Natalie Angier, “Red”; student essays

Homework 4 due

Title of book to review due


Workshop essay 2 “Home Science”

Homework 5 due

“Lucidity, lucidity, lucidity”

Reason and emotion

Homework 6 due

Framing ethical concerns

Asking the right questions

Homework 7 due

Revision of essay 2 due


Share proposals for essay 3

Public health and individual patients

Involving the reader

Homework 8 due
10 Workshop essay 3 Homework 9 due
11 Darwin’s dark legacy Homework 10 due

Book review as essay

Tight focus and wide significance

The language of judgement

Homework 11 due

Revision of essay 3 due


Questions about essay 4, book review

Strategizing the longer research essay

14 Workshop essay 4 Homework 13 due
15 Workshop essay 4 (cont.)  

Keeping readers involved in longer essays

Handling complexity

Homework 15b (revision of essay 4) due 1 day after Ses #16

Present proposals for essay 5

Structuring the longer essay (Hancock)

Homework 16 due
18 Outline essay 5 and write introduction Homework 17 due

Share outlines/intros in small groups

Individual conferences for essay 5

Homework 18 due
20 Workshop essay 5

Homework 19 due

Essay 5 due

21 Work on essay 5 issues as needed  
22 Work on essay 5 issues as needed (cont.)  
23 Work on re-revision and polishing

Homework 21 due

Revision of essay 5 due


Guest speakers:

Edward Morris and Susannah Sayler (Topic: The Canary Project)

Marcia Bartusiak
(Topic: Science Writing as a career)

Homework 23 due 1 day after Ses #24

Re-revision of one essay from essays 2-4 due one day after Ses #24

25 Hear favorite essays and discuss  

Hear favorite essays and discuss (cont.)

Course evaluations


Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2009
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments