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The Intersection of English and Science


Living and learning in a mathematics and science academy, we’re surrounded by a myriad of STEM. From the original theories introduced thousands of years ago to the new innovations that come to life each day, we’re constantly gathering new information. As we ponder concepts and ideas, it’s interesting to learn about how they are presented to us. Mr. Dean and Dr. Randall tackle this field through the new, senior-only english elective Rhetoric and Communication: Science. The following interview has been edited for clarity, but the content has been approved by Mr. Dean, Dr. Randall, and the students interviewed.

What inspired you to start this class?

Mr. Dean: It was sort of as a joke. We were learning about intersession at the time, and we joked around that we could do something about zombies. People laughed a bit, but then Dr. Randall said we could do a lot with that. It could be humanities-oriented, while also having a science base. This meant looking at the cross appeal, such as the metaphor of zombies, how diseases behave like zombies, and why do we tell stories with zombies in them. We were able to do this intersession, and the year after that we did another one about the story of a germ. After doing these intersessions, we were looking to do this in a more authentic experience.

How did you get started on planning it?

Mr. Dean: We went into it thinking of just coming up with a class. We didn’t worry about the logistics of it, but we just wrote what we would want to do with it. Then, we threw it to the school and said ‘This is our plan, how do we make it happen?’

Dr. Randall: We tried to plan it in a way where, if there’s interest, different science and humanities faculty could pop in. This year, our theme is neglected tropical diseases and rare genetic diseases, because they’re related to my biology background. But, it could have any theme depending on who’s teaching.

What was your vision for the class?

Mr. Dean: We tried to think of information as a life cycle. Where does it start? Who creates knowledge in science? How is it channeled? We’re very focused on professional communication channels such as how scientists communicate with each other, and then how that science gets communicated to real participants in the world. We wanted to think about the different people who have buy-ins into scientific information. So, our plan was to structure our class around different communication experiences that relate to a similar topic. Dr. Randall has a specific focus in science, she has her background. We wanted to keep it close to what we know. When we were designing it, we wanted to imagine the flexibility if it were a different set of teachers. So, if wasn’t Dr. Randall and me, students could conceive the class in different ways. You could have a physics teacher step into the classroom and do something completely different. Part of the benefit of it now is that Dr. Randall has experience in the fields that we’re learning about. I have my own experiences in communication as well. With a literary background, I’ve also taken courses in Technology Communication and Visual Rhetoric, so I’ve got some tools that I can bring to the classroom as well. I can imagine if you had different teachers, they’re going to have their own expertise and experience, too. 

Dr. Randall: We wanted to give students an opportunity to have a class that is as rigorous in science as it is english. We wanted to give them a chance to build a portfolio of work, and the best way to learn how to communicate is to practice doing it. Our goal was to allow students to have a personalized version of the project that we used to do in Biology Seminar (a former literature review class) — within certain guidelines, you’re able to pick a topic and work with it throughout the semester.

From what you’ve seen so far, is there anything that you would have done differently?

Dean: We question if we can get more experimental with it. What if we put together a board game? Or did an assignment on interpretive dance? But, the problem with that, is that we first wanted to give ourselves a basis. Additionally, those are very hard ideas to evaluate. Thinking about what we’re getting out of it is very difficult. For example, how do we look back on an assignment and think ‘Yes, that was worth our time.’ But, I think there’s science communication out there that’s not traditional. Like memes, there’s always other things out there. I would need a lot more research to really grasp the field. Ultimately, when we get a better handle on it, I wouldn’t mind experimenting. That’s where I want the class to go. 

Dr. Randall: Just yesterday, we had a conversation about how much creativity we allow or having some other less formal opportunities to present. If we were to do it again, we might have an expanded improv day, where we’d ask questions such as “If you were to do outreach to young people, could you design a lab?” Next year we hope to allow some time for more creative projects.

What do you hope students will gain from this class?

Dean: Real working experience. I want you guys to feel like you could walk into an interview and be able to discuss real experience in science communication. Also, that you feel that the work you do is valuable to your time. This class is less about us teaching you from on-high, and more about you taking the tools and skills that we learn, and applying them to real situations. Because, that’s what I think rhetoric is all about.

What are your biggest struggles with this class?

Dean: I’ve never co-taught before. With most of the classes that I teach, I would consider myself an expert in those topics. But, in this case, I would not consider myself an expert in science. For me, that’s exciting, but also scary. I have to really collaborate. Dr. Randall and I would meet almost weekly; we looked at work together, debated ideas, had disagreements, and negotiated them. We thought about what we could do together, and what we’re individually good at. So, as much as this is a learning experience for you guys, I’ve also professionally benefitted from the class. We’re learning from each other. It’s forced me to grow and take risks, and I think that’s fun.

What are your favorite parts about this class?

Dean: Seeing what you guys have produced each time.The fact that we can get into that classroom and just talk about something. Almost everybody in that room is throwing out great ideas and addressing ideas that I haven’t thought of. It makes me think “This is what IMSA is.” Working with talented students that have input into their learning process. 

Dr. Randall: Seeing the work that students put together. I’ve been really impressed. This is what we we’re hoping for. Seeing students work hard to understand the science and put things together has been very rewarding and fun. Hopefully they’ve found it fun, too.

The structure of the class consists of students working in groups of 3-5 people putting together projects on a specific neglected tropical disease or rare genetic disease. Here are a couple of questions and answers from some seniors currently taking the class. The names of the students are redacted for privacy, but they have read over their responses to ensure that their opinion is true.

What were you expecting when you took this class?

Student 1: I was expecting pretty much what I got. There’s a lot more science than English which is fine by me since those have consistently been my best and worst subjects respectively.

Student 2: I’m not really sure if I’m gonna be honest, I just knew that I wasn’t that good at scientific writing and the class focused it on that and I knew it wouldn’t be easy—given that both teachers are demanding and the class itself would be challenging—but it interested it me more than the other English courses.

What are your favorite parts about this class?

Student 1: I enjoy the collaborative nature of the class and how we always work with the same groups and have larger projects over longer periods of time instead of constant work.

Student 2: I feel like I learned more than I thought I would, and I pay more attention to scientific writing and notice details that I would’ve had before. I am more attentive to scientific writing now.

What are you least favorite parts about this class?

Student 1: I don’t like the high expectations that the teachers have of how quickly we can learn certain topics, especially those from presentations by other students. I think assessments should be more about what we learn about scientific communication and less about actual science.

Student 2: I think some of the assignments are unnecessary and are just assignments created to pass time.

From the teacher and students, the Rhetoric course seems to include many opportunities for collaboration. Working together, students are able to build to their portfolios, and learn skills that will be beneficial in the future. If this interests you, make sure to keep Rhetoric in mind when you’re choosing your classes in the spring!

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