WRAC Offers Course in Writing as Participatory Science

Who gets to participate in science? 

Applying the lens of participatory science, anyone can contribute to scientific advancement: through data collection, testing, writing, photography, and other modes of documentation and inquiry. With a community-centered and collaborative approach, citizens can engage with science in their backyards, at a local park, and in other spaces well beyond the laboratory.

In the Spring semester of 2023, WRAC professor Matthew Rossi introduced the first cohort of writing students to participatory science in WRA 335: Writing in Scientific Contexts, a course designed for students pursuing a Minor in Writing or writing elective.

Some students came from the College of Arts and Sciences, bringing their excitement for writing and community engagement. Others were STEM majors who offered a depth of knowledge about local wildlife and ecosystems.

The first cohort of WRA 335. Photo courtesy Matthew Rossi

Rossi led this academically diverse group of students through a collaboration with the Corey Marsh Ecological Research Center (CMERC), a 350-acre wetland property that promotes multidisciplinary research in the sciences. This year, Rossi continues the CMERC partnership with the second cohort of WRA 335. 

Teaching at the Intersection of Writing and Science

The structuring of the course – and Rossi’s overall enthusiasm for science communication – is shaped by his background as a fiction writer and longtime contributor to Foldscope, a participatory science project developed at Stanford University. As described by Rossi, the Foldscope inventors envisioned a foldable paper microscope: a “lab-useful,” low-cost alternative to larger, bulkier models. 

Rossi got involved with the Foldscope project in 2015, which roughly marks the beginning of his engagement with scientific writing. Today, he funnels his professional experiences and personal interests in nature writing into the classroom of WRA 335. 

Shortly after he was assigned to teach the course last year, Rossi reached out to Dr. Jen Owen, research coordinator of CMERC and Associate Chair of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, with the hope of engaging students in a community-based writing project.

“Jen is a trained ornithologist, but she’s also a person who’s open to all kinds of inquiry,” Rossi said. Owen’s openness and eagerness to collaborate with local educators and learners pairs well with Rossi’s vision for WRA 335, which involves working closely with students in to consider new avenues for participatory science – framed by goals of inclusion, diversity, and equitable research. 

Students in WRA 335 spend the first half of their semester visiting CMERC and generating questions about the communities that interact with the land. Many students come from the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, so “they already have a previous relationship with the marsh,” Rossi noted. 

While this familiarity tends to encourage more precise questions about the communities of animals and citizens in and around the marsh, students from the humanities – roughly half the class, Rossi estimated – developed “a bunch of really interesting, human-centered project proposals,” he observed. 

Alongside trips to the marsh, students discuss the translation of scientific knowledge across different disciplines, and how this knowledge is repurposed in different forms to appeal to various stakeholders. Rossi assigns hands-on assignments, like translating an academic science paper into a story for the general public, to acquaint students with the process of scientific translation. 

By sifting through academic sources, students learn to create compelling stories based on “hard” scientific ideas: stories that can be shared with readers of varying ages, cultural and educational backgrounds, and scientific know-how. 

Science Writing as a Vehicle for Collaboration and Connection

Through these assignments and ongoing collaboration with CMERC, students gradually adopt the inquisitive mindset of scientific writers. 

Rossi summarized: “As a classroom of writers, we ask ourselves: how do the languages of STEM and the humanities communicate with each other? Why do some kinds of science communication boost public interaction with the sciences while others fall short?” 

Students ponder these questions while walking across the soft, spongy terrain of Corey Marsh, located in Bath Township. Formerly a muck soil farm, the marsh is considered a satellite location of MSU’s campus and represents the last remaining acreage from the MSU swamp land grant established in 1858. 

After years of farming and testing the effects of various chemicals on the muck soil, “the farm kept flooding and stopped being useful,” Rossi explained – so the land went fallow, or inactive, “and finally returned to being a marsh.” 

The eventual return of the land to marsh status supported its establishment as a research center in 2018. In addition to partnering with Indigenous communities through wild rice production and other initiatives, CMERC fosters relationships with local researchers and students – like the budding scientific communicators and writers in Rossi’s class. 

The partnership with CMERC in WRA 335 is an example of the hands-on, community-engaged learning experiences that define both the Bachelor of Arts degree in Professional and Public Writing (P2W) and the Minor in Writing. Core to both programs is the belief that diverse groups of people can learn, converse, and write together to find creative solutions to complex problems. 

A birdwatching Sparty designed by WRA 335 student Sarah Munson. Image courtesy Matthew Rossi

(Re)discovering the Humanity in Scientific Inquiry 

When asked about the value of conversations between students in the sciences and humanities, Professor Rossi framed science as a human discipline. “Science cannot happen in a vacuum outside of human influence,” he said. “It’s something that involves humans and is a human-focused idea.”

This perspective underpins classroom conversations in WRA 335, where students explore a range of topics with the support of Rossi and other working professionals. Throughout the course, guest speakers visit the classroom and enliven students’ coursework with real-world insights. 

This spring, Rossi is excited to invite Cat Fribley, Executive Director of Birdability: an organization that strives to share the joys of birding with people who have disabilities, per its mission statement. Students will also enjoy a presentation by Dr. J. Drew Lanham: a birder, ecologist, poet, essayist, and recipient of a 2022 MacArthur Fellowship, whose interdisciplinary work explores the intersections of race, place, and nature. Previous class guests include Dr. Abbie Stevens of the MSU Museum, who worked on the 1.5° Celsius Art Exhibition and discussed the role of art and storytelling in science.  

By the end of the course, most students come to realize that “science is a really messy process,” Rossi reflected. “It’s not just a matter of stating facts about the world, but engaging in different kinds of querying and thinking that might result in knowledge,” he said. 

“Oftentimes, the knowledge you get from scientific inquiry is ‘nope, not that.’ There’s a lot of scientific communication about ‘discovery,’ but scientists often discover something isn’t something.”

Students also grapple with the inextricable role of identity in science. “Our identities influence who gets to participate in science and which types of studies will be funded,” Rossi noted. Guided by class readings, students consider the impact of U.S. exceptionalism on global perceptions of science, the historical exclusion of women from medical studies, and the nuances of grant writing, in which scientists are tasked to explain the relevance of their work to particular stakeholders – many of whom are non-scientists. 

Science Communication for the Lansing Community

With this foundation of readings, discussions, and ongoing peer-to-peer support, students enter what Rossi described as the “studio” phase of the course, when they begin working on their final projects. 

Last spring, after considering a range of projects – including recording the CMERC soundscape and creating art displays at the marsh – students settled on a proposal called “Moths at the Marsh.” By encouraging community members to raise and release polyphemus moths, the students aimed to promote a larger and more diverse moth community at Corey Marsh. 

WRA 335 students design an infographic about the life cycle of a polyphemus moth. Image courtesy Matthew Rossi

To complete this proposal, the students split into four teams: ecology, narrative, outreach, and making. As part of her work for the narrative team, P2W student Sarah Munson designed a mascot for CMERC, which she conceptualized as a spokesperson for the research center. 

Drawing from her knowledge of CMERC and experience with audience research, Sarah created two options for the mascot: a birdwatching Sparty and a polyphemus moth named Corey. Through these designs, Sarah and her teammates sought to illuminate the science behind the life of a polyphemus moth while increasing public awareness of CMERC’s vital work.

Corey the Polyphemus Moth, designed by WRA 335 student Sarah Munson. Image courtesy Matthew Rossi

Building a Bridge Between the Sciences and Humanities

When the second cohort of WRA 335 students complete the course this spring, Rossi hopes they’ll walk away with a “whole-person approach to their understanding of scientific inquiry,” he reflected. “If a student enters the course and they’re not a scientist, I hope they’ll become more comfortable reading a scientific article, and leave with the belief that science can be accessible.”

And if a student enters the course with a strong scientific background? “I hope they can walk away this spring with a better understanding of how to tell a story from a scientific perspective,” Rossi expressed.

Last spring, one student described how the course helped her bridge disciplinary languages that “she didn’t feel like could be bridged,” Rossi shared. “My heart sang in that moment.” The humanities and the sciences may represent two kinds of disciplinary languages, but Rossi believes that “they can talk to each other”– and after taking his course, so do his students.