SCI8101 | Science in Practice | Science

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The course specifications for SCI8101 Science in Practice form the primary guidelines for both students and staff in terms of the requirements of the course and the assessment via an essay. However, the following notes are provided as a more detailed guide as to what to focus on:

• SCIENCE:Select a topic in science, which the Oxford dictionary defines as “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment1”. For the purposes of this course we can regard science as scholarly study of a particular “discipline” in the natural sciences (the sciences that deal with the natural world2), for example physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth science or biology, or a broader interdisciplinary “field” of study, such as environmental science.

• SCHOLARSHIP:The writing of an essay in science is broadly similar to the writing up of scientific research, but unlike research we are focused on scholarship (the use of existing knowledge) instead the writing up of new knowledge arising from observation or experiment. So what this means is that you are only being asked to survey and interpret past and current published literature and not engage in original research producing some new results (this is the domain of the companion course SCI8102 Research Skills).

• STRUCTURE:In scientific writing the following structure is often used:

Title – What the essay is about, with more emphasis on descriptiveness than attention seeking. Abstract – A summary of the essay a few hundred words long. It comprises a series of sentences that each succinctly summarizes the introduction, methodology, results and discussion sections. Introduction – Explains why the essay is written by generating an aim based on current knowledge. The field of study is introduced, and the focus narrows until we address a question to be explored or propose an idea or hypothesis to be tested.

Methods – Explains how the question is explored or the idea or hypothesis is tested, sometimes using two parts, namely (1) the exposition of a theory followed by (2), a description of experimental or observational techniques and analysis methods used.

Results – Explains what has been found by the use of the above scientific method. Typically, the heart of the results section is a series of figures (plots) showing x versus y with experimental data points fitted by a curve described by theory. The accompanying figure captions and text should explain what the figures mean. A well-written work provides the reader with figure captions that be understood without referring to the main text, and a main text that can be understood without resorting to the figures.

Discussion – Here is where you explain what it all means by interpreting the results presented and presenting the reader with your view on what has been learned. Essays are fundamentally devices for influencing minds (your readers), but in an honest, transparent way using credible evidence, and this is especially the case if you are writing about science and want to be taken seriously by scientifically literate people.

References and appendices – A good essay uses plenty of credible references to support what is being written (and more general material referred to can also be listed, as a bibliography). Sometimes it makes sense to add an appendix to include important supporting material that would nevertheless distract the reader if included in the main body of the work.

• LENGTH: There is not a hard and fast rule here, but if you aim for about 5,000 words total that’s roughly 10 pages, assuming 12-point font, single spacing and no illustrations. However, its not advisable to neglect illustrations, unless you think you can write a completely absorbing essay that simply comprises many pages of closely typed text. Rather than worry about the essay being too short please don’t make it too long as you a writing an essay and not a novel! (“Brevity is the soul of wit” – William Shakespeare)

• EXAMPLES: There are many good examples of science writing in what could be described as being in an essay format. Have a look on the web and discuss them on the course Forum.

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