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A Researched Science Essay for the General Public

21W.031: Explorations in Communicating about Science & Technology

Janis Melvold


Assignment #3:

A Researched Science Essay for the General Public

10-12 pages


For this assignment, you will undertake the challenge of writing about some aspect of science, mathematics, or technology for a general audience. Through this assignment, you will gain experience in:

  • Researching a topic through a variety of published (and other) sources (more about this below);
  • Presenting a highly specialized and technical subject in a way that is both accessible and interesting to a general audience.

Your first task will be to find a topic that interests you, and that you think could be the basis for an intriguing and informative essay for people who have little or no previous acquaintance with this subject. If you are involved with a UROP, you could write about something related to that.  However, there are endless other possibilities. Another suggestion for finding a topic would be to browse the website of a department you’re interested in and check the links to research labs and groups in that department. Read about the research that’s going on in those labs and groups until you find something that especially interests you.

Next, you will need to begin researching your topic. Search for a variety of articles on your topic. A valuable source of information might be a person here at MIT who is involved in research in the area you’re writing about. Go and visit a lab or group that is carrying out that research and talk with someone who’s involved in the work.  I’m available to help facilitate contacts with people and resources here at MIT.

With some preliminary background on the topic, you should be able to decide on the specific focus and audience of your essay. Remember that the notion of a “general audience” can be viewed as a continuum: some “general audiences” are more “general” than others.  The audience of The New Yorker or Discover magazine is quite different from the audience of Technology Review.  Where would you imagine your essay (article) appearing?  Don’t approach this as a “report” on some aspect of science or technology. Rather, the essay should reflect your own idea about how to present a technical subject in an interesting, engaging, and informative way to your target audience.

There is no standard format for this essay. However, you may find it useful to divide up the piece with section headings that highlight main ideas. You can also consider using illustrations. The first version of the essay should be 1.5 or double-spaced and, of course, it should have a captivating title.