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by Lauren Gregory

Originally published in The Chronicle:  The Independent Daily At Duke University (April 3, 2003)

The required first-year course in academic writing tends to have an infamous reputation among undergraduates. That's what makes Julie Reynolds' goal - transforming the class into a course that will attract the attention of the entire student body - so ambitious.

Reynolds, a lecturing fellow in the first-year writing program, hopes to invigorate the traditional Writing 20 seminar and to realize Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William Chafe's 1997 call to the Curriculum 2000 committee for a "new focus on critical thinking and advocacy" in the University Writing Program.

Labeled as tedious by many students, the work of a typical Writing 20 seminar usually includes learning how to write an academic paper for an audience of one: the professor. In designing her course, Communicating Science to the Public, Reynolds wanted to help her students see themselves as writers for a real audience.

"We write so much better when it's not a hypothetical assignment," she said.

She charged each student with the task of finding a primary scientific document of interest to "translate" into a language their peers would appreciate.

As soon as they had outlined their personal goals as writers, the students in each section of Reynolds' class were faced with the challenge of marketing their work to the University population at large.

Freshman Clifton Kerr, who entitled his project "Weeks in Hell, for Students and Nature: Environmental Impacts of Human Habitation in Krzyzewskiville and Beyond," emphasized that the learning process in this class involved more than simply putting words down on paper.

"We tried to figure out what we would be willing to do to go out of our way to read something," he said.

As a result, each of the three sections agreed on a theme that would encompass all of the students' work and also appeal to their peers. Their final choices were "The Science Behind Duke Basketball: How to Prevent the End of the World as We Know It," "From Einstein to Evolution: Eleven Misconceptions of Science Every College Student Should Know About," and "Beyond 2003: Scientific Advancements in our Lifetime."

The students decided to reach their target audience through various media they felt would be both readily accessible and attractive to the student body. Students in one section designed and distributed a brochure featuring selections from their projects. Another section decided to assemble its projects in a published book that they will contribute to Perkins Library's permanent collection.

The medium that all three sections expect to see the most success in, however, is the online component. Each group designed and built a unique web page where anyone can access full-text versions of students' projects: "Eleven Misconceptions" is available at www.duke.edu/~nbn2/writing20, "Beyond 2003" at www.duke.edu/~scf5, and "Science Behind Duke Basketball" at www.duke.edu/~pig.

Students in all three sections said they have benefited greatly from the past semester's work. For students like Justin Marcus - for whom Writing 20 marks a first in formal writing classes - writing and conversation in Communicating Science to the Public has contributed to a growing awareness of "the big picture" in the revision process, something he and his classmates see as an important lesson for any kind of communication.

Members of this class of almost exclusively science majors - and coincidentally enough, also almost exclusively men - will be tabling on the Bryan Center walkway and "accosting people" at the Marketplace, intent on spreading their message to anyone and everyone on campus.

This message is spelled out quite clearly in the introduction to the "Science of Duke Basketball" web site: "Sure, we hope our essays teach you something about science, but if we're lucky, you just might have some fun along the way."