Get All Students Writing Lab Reports with "Science Writer"

Earlier this week I crossed paths with long time PLN member and friend, Karen Janowski who asked me to take a look at “Science Writer” the CAST organization’s effort at creating a tool to help students more easily work through putting together a science experiment write-up or lab report.

CAST is dedicated to “expand learning opportunities for all individuals through Universal Design for Learning,” otherwise known as “UDL.” Science Writer is a web template that students can work their way through in smaller, manageable chunks in an effort to finish with a full blown lab summary including an introduction, procedure, analysis, and conclusion.

After completing a recent summer course where experimentation was performed, I took the opportunity to put the template to work and see how well it stood up to making an acceptable piece of work. I was pleasantly surprised by the many features built in to help students work their way through their work. Most notably:

  • A “text to speech” option that reads written work back, allowing kids who respond better to auditory editing to catch more mistakes. Even when I threw in some more complex scientific vocabulary the reader worked well.
  • Autosaving feature for those students who have a tendency to forget!
  • Models provided through the entire process in the form of “Max the Dog and Sam the Penguin” are not only designed to give kids a sample of what should be written in each section, they also model the revisions process as mistakes intentionally put into the models presented are fixed in the second step. Important for students to recognize the value of the revisions process!
  • A revision “checklist” provided by “Eko the Gecko” help students seek out the most common mistakes that need to be reread for.
  • English to Spanish translation tool for Spanish / Latin American ELL students.
  • “Help Me Get Started” tool gives students starter sentences to get kids writing who might otherwise be stuck unnecessarily on what or how to write what they need to say and share.
  • A “Revision” segment in each lab section that brings all the text boxes into one, emphasizing importance for student to think of all the “little chunks” as a whole that should be cohesive and giving students a better opportunity to catch repeated statements or steps.

Science Writer is not the perfect tool as it does leaves some features to be desired. Science Writer is exactly what its name suggests. There is no opportunity in the editing boxes to import tables and graphs (almost always necessary in science lab write-ups) leaving the student responsible for ultimately exporting their writing (print or email only) and copy/pasting it into another word processing tool. In addition, the “Journal” feature provided to drop in notes offers no exporting capabilities, limiting its usability and function. The text to speech reader, like many found online, struggles to flow naturally which may throw off some students trying to listen for mistakes in their write-ups. In addition I need to add the disclaimer that the accuracy of the English – Spanish translator could not be analyzed in great detail.

Ultimately, Science Writer stands as a tool only and not a be all end all solution to your students scientific write-ups. That being said, its a great resource for middle school students completing their first lab reports and for those students who struggle with large scale written work that need work broken into smaller, more manageable chunks. Students who find value in their work being read back to them can also put this tool to good work and those who consistently fail to revise their work will find the stage harder to ignore (though still not completely impossible.)

Consider encouraging your students to use this tool for their first report of the year and share your results here! I’d love to know how practical others find Science Writer to be.

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About MrMusselman

K-5 Science Specialist for the Burlington Public Schools of Burlington, MA.
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