In my classes, especially field-based marine science classes, I ask the students to write a data report as well as a blog post for the same activity. One is more formal and the other is rather informal. I do this with a clear goal: To give them an opportunity to express their observations and main results for different audiences, for deeper learning. To me, learning how to communicate with others effectively – via a formal report or via a blog – is as important for students as learning how to conduct sound research in the field.
First, the students must learn – as in any traditional science lab courses – how to pose their research questions, build a testable hypothesis, construct a viable experiment or observation design, conduct meticulous observations, carefully analyze the collected data, present the main results with their critical discussion, and demonstrate their main points with a clear summary. Producing an easy-to-understand and representative graphic image of the data is also a part of important training. One good figure can speak thousand words. The report does not need to be lengthy, for educational purpose. Based on a brief guideline I give to them, the students need to work hard to select the most crucial information out of complicated observations to boil them down to brief yet succinct description of their work. They need to demonstrate that they were able to test their hypothesis with a sound scientific method and reliable results.
The question is, however, after completing their elaborate formal report, did they really understand what they just worked so hard beyond meeting the required formality? What insights, intelligent challenges, surprises they may have experienced? What other multidisciplinary ideas the students came across in their minds? Can they explain their scientific work to their parents with enthusiasm without letting them fall into immediate boredom?
That is why I give them a new challenge. They are asked to convert their scientific research to an informal and entertaining story that any lay people can understand the main points and think about it. They are also asked to mix their learning experiences as part of the story. Sure, they may use some humor, as long as it is appropriate and won’t insult others, and use some interesting photos. For some students, unfortunately, it is easier just to follow the required format of the formal report by filling in dry facts and all technical jargon. Convincing them about the purpose of this new activity with ample guidance and explanation is critical for effective collaboration.
Once they understand the reason, most students enjoy this extra class activity. They love to mix their creativity into otherwise rigid scientific work. The the class activity (assignment) can really enrich their learning experience for the long-term. The joy of learning new knowledge and potential of application may last long beyond the semester.