One of the first projects I joined when I got to the University of West Florida was a project designed to improve the writing skills of biology students. Hui-Min of the Department of Biology and Bre Garrett of the Department of English had proposed and received an internal grant to design a writing class for biology and other science students, and I developed the curriculum for the first semester.

Bre recommended a studio design for the class. The easiest way to describe a studio is to liken it to a workshop, but the pedagogy behind studio extends beyond a workshop approach. Studios are designed to wrest some curricular control from the instructor and give it to the student: students choose what writing assignments to work on (usually from their other classes), set the agenda for their feedback sessions, and take the lead on giving feedback to their colleagues.

Having never taught a studio class before, I didn’t really know what to expect. But it was, like, TOTALLY AMAZING. (Excuse me, my millennial is showing.)

Of course, I didn’t totally give up control of the class. We spent the first few weeks of class discussing various readings that gave students tools and vocabulary for providing feedback. But once the workshops began, I acted more like a conference panel respondent than a lecturer. I summarized and linked points that students made, and added my own feedback as the opportunity arose (I also provided written feedback as well).

One of the fascinating outcomes of this particular studio design was that we didn’t just discuss writing–we also discussed what was essentially science literacy. The class was a mix of graduate and undergraduate students, and more than once in the class, the graduate students led discussions about research methods in response to undergrads’ struggles in particular writing assignments.

Close up on a fruit fly landing on the lid of a compost bin.
Fruit Fly (Drosophila immigrans) CC by Martin Cooper. Many of my students were doing lab work with gut microbiota from drosophila immigrans; apparently their gut microbiota is very similar to humans’.

The course also gave me the opportunity to develop as an instructor. In bigger classes, when facilitating discussion, I have a tendency to fill the silence rather than wait for students to speak up. In this studio class, however, I didn’t have much silence to contend with. Now, this might have been more to do with the makeup of the class–I only had seven students, and most (if not all) of them knew each other from labs or other classes. But the class at least gave me the opportunity to hand over the conversational reigns and do more listening than speaking.

The Science Writing Lab (as we came to call it) is currently in its second iteration, taught this semester by Nancy Schrock of the Department of English. There were some changes to the course design; the class now meets for two hours once a week rather than one hour once a week–a much needed adjustment. I think Nancy chose slightly different readings to help guide conversation, but the studio design is still the same. I think the project is slated to continue for another year as well. If all goes well, I think Hui-Min hopes to make it a regular offering.

I may not teach the Science Writing Lab again (my postdoc is up in 2018, and my teaching slate is already filling up!), but I’ll get to use studio design again for a course we are developing for the Public, Technical, and Workplace Writing Certificate: ePortfolio Design Studio, scheduled for Spring 2018. I’m already looking forward to it!

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