Technical Writing is a Skill that Must Be Taught

My proposal: carve out time in your science (or math!) class for kids to write formal papers.


The physics of musical instruments project is a great opportunity for my students to try their first technical writing.

Why Write?

Students write, revise, and rewrite in English classes and I think they should do the same in science. I say this mostly as a former technical writer who mentored under a fabulous editor. I learned how to edit nearly anything I wrote down to half its length while retaining all its meaning, how to apply the inverted pyramid of journalism so I could be certain readers got the most important details, how to use the simplest words possible, and how to receive editing feedback in a positive — rather than critical — light.

How to Teach Tech Writing

Most importantly, I began to think of myself as a writer. That’s a big deal for a person who hated every writing assignment in high school.

How do I propose teaching technical writing in a science (or math!) class?

  • Devote in-class time because this is likely the first tech writing you’ve asked your kids to do.
  • Bring the librarian in to share resources and discuss proper citation style. For my 9th graders, this is their introduction to the Upper School library, so she’s invested in the effort as well. Pro tip: my librarian pulls books for a reserve cart that lives in my classroom during the project so kids have one less thing to worry about. 
  • Spend the time explicitly teaching the tech skills needed to produce a paper in the platform of your choice. Word, Google Docs, or WordPress all have their quirks. Pick one and teach it. This year, I showed them how to insert a page header with automatic page numbering, how to insert page breaks, write equations, and use the Insert Symbol command.


  • Share examples of good tech writing style. For instance, kids will be surprised to learn that passive voice, so often maligned in English class, is expected in a science lab report. 
  • Read drafts of their paper in class and offer real-time feedback. I caution kids to edit out sentences that don’t add value such as “I really learned a lot from this project.” Oh, and I challenge them to write the shortest possible paper. Too often, these kids have been told to write a minimum length that they’ve become masters at faking a longer looking paper. No one has time for that (them or me!). Shorter wins.


Last year, I demanded kids write their entire research paper (3-5 pages double spaced, so kind of short) on their own time. To be nice, I did remove demands for homework in addition to this paper for the week prior the due date.


This year, I devoted more than enough class time to write the papers in class — about 3 full class periods or around 200 minutes. The time was worth it. This year’s papers are better and based on comparing to last year, we’re not falling behind.

We have one other big writing project due this semester so I look forward to seeing how their writing evolves.

Next Steps

My rubrics (at the end of the project descriptions) are acceptable but need revision. Several papers had flaws that I couldn’t figure out how to grade because the flaws weren’t directly addressed in the rubric. The easiest solution seems to be to add “and is well-written” to the highest score for every element.

Are you writing in science (or math!) class? How do you incorporate it? Have you seen writing incorporated horribly? Tell me about it in the comments.

Magazines for a Geek Friendly Classroom

Ahh, summertime. Time to vacation and read magazines. Shamefully, that includes the Us subscription that comes to Chandra Dunlap at my house. Don’t know her but God love her for the address mixup that delivers trashy goodness weekly.

Also, there’s time to pick up a Popular Science at the airport. Time to read the mental_floss cover-to-cover. Ahh, summertime.

So that has me thinking – why not use magazines in class? Maybe just for the reading. Maybe we actually do something with what we read. I dunno yet. But this ad in Popular Science made me want these sources of inspiration in my classroom:

What magazines would I want? What would you choose for your room?

I love Wired because of the range of articles on technology topics. Several articles on this best of Wired list still resonate with me. (The first time I read Neal Stephenson was the “Mother Earth Mother Board” article and I was hooked!)

Going in another direction is mental_floss, which I describe as the smartypants magazine. Good stuff for the classroom in every issue, including articles on why we feel phantom cellphone vibrations and can you really tell the distance to lightning by counting to the thunder? (shoot, those both come from the most recent issue!).

After Wired and mental_floss, I ran out of ideas. So I hit up twitter.

The best responses: @jsb16 tells me I should look into National Geographic and Popular Mechanics; @jybuell suggests Make and Servo.

GeekDad over at Wired curated a list of the best geeky magazines that also inspired me.

Next stop: the bookstore to pick up current issues. Research!

What else should I be reading?

More on Physics of Superheroes

My physics class has 2 awesome things going on this week. First, our unit on energy is ending with presentations of the superheroes the students have invented to demonstrate kinetic, potential, conservation of energy, momentum, impulse, and heat transfer. Pictures are coming, I promise!

Second, we’re diving into kinematics — my favorite topic in high school physics. For the curious among you, check out this week in physics class at Chrysalis Experiential Academy. The coolest superhero calculation we’re doing this week is “how fast does Superman have to fly to circle the globe?” in this clip from Superman I (1978).

Physics of Superheroes

Dr. James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes has inspired me to frame an entire high school physics course around Superman, Spider-Man, The Flash and their other buddies. Here’s a little taste of the kind of science we’ll be learning:

I’m outlining the course now to align with state physics standards. The biggest challenge I’m having is lining up character studies in all the areas of physics we need to hit. This might come as a surprise to those who’ve seen me wearing superhero t-shirts for the last year, but I really haven’t read a ton of comics. I just know that the superhero physics went over really well 2 years ago.

The state standards and my initial superhero pairings go something like this:

  • Conservation of Energy for 6-7 weeks. Spider-Man and the death of Gwen Stacy makes an excellent study in the energy of falling objects.
  • Linear Motion for 6-7 weeks. I’ll call on Superman and several friends to explain velocity and acceleration.
  • Forces for 6-7 weeks. Superman and The Flash give me so much material on classic Newtonian physics.
  • Electricity and Magnetism for 7-9 weeks. Magneto from the X-Men can be brought in on electrostatics.
  • Waves for 6-7 weeks. The Flash can be used again on the speed of light discussions.

After years of bland physics examples and after going to work at an experiential school, I knew I needed “a thing” to really engage the class. Two years ago, I ended my first physics class with a superhero physics final project. The students were really into it!

I based the project on Kakalios’ book, inspired by the following chuckle and lesson in learning for “real life”:

Interestingly enough, whenever I cite examples from superhero comic books in a lecture, my students never wonder when they will use this information in “real life.” Apparently they all have plans, post-graduation, that involve Spandex and protecting the City from all threats.

Tongue firmly in cheek, Kakalios is referencing the fact that his students are learning from something within the frame of their experience. When I say the students’ experience, I mean only to say that all my teens have seen the amazing feats of the likes of X-Men and Spider-Man. Not that a human spider really swings around the city stopping criminals, *grin*.

Forget blocks sliding down inclined planes! I have Superman leaping a tall building.

Superheroes in my Physics Class

I am SO looking forward to developing my physics class for the upcoming year. And after seeing “The Incredible Hulk” this weekend, I’m all the more eager to get to work. There are so many great physics examples that can be pulled from the recent comic book movies. Superman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, and even The Fantastic Four.

Using The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios as my foundation, I’m planning on teaching an entire high school physics course using nothing but superheroes. Want to learn Newtonian motion? Look to Superman, Spider-Man and The Flash. How about electricity? Study Electro and Magneto.

In between all the reading for my Masters program (and it’s substantial!), I’ve been devouring comic books. I feel so 13 years old right now, *grin*.

Crayon Physics Simulates Real World

Where Real=”looking as if it were drawn by a small child with a fat Crayola” AND Real=”behaving according to the Newtonian physics we all adore”

Crayon Physics Deluxe, currently in development for the PC.

I had the honor of teaching a physics class last year and think it was a Top 5 course in my teaching career. Don’t get me wrong, computer technology and math offer their own excitements. But, is there any other course where you try to sink a clay boat with pennies, study the physics of superheroes, and talk all dv/dt on people? I didn’t think so.

Until the day I return to a physics classroom, I’ll remain content signing up to be notified when Crayon Physics Deluxe is released.

(thanks to information aesthetics)
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