Tag Archives: Science Writing

Environmental Writing on the Susquehanna River

For many, the Susquehanna River is just that expanse they cross on their way along the Pennsylvania Turnpike or a troublemaker for the Chesapeake Bay, but for students from ENGL 466: Environmental Advocacy Writing the river is a source of inspiration. These students have been tasked with telling stories of the river, focusing on the people, plants, animals, and places that make the Susquehanna a valuable connection to our area. What better way to start that process than by getting into the river itself?

Susky Fishing CreekLed by Dr. Justin Mando and guided by Shank’s Mare Outfitters, the class floated the river to gain a sense of place that will drive the writing they do on behalf of this magnificent, threatened, and often overlooked American waterway. Their goal is to capture in writing both the aesthetic and cultural value of the Susquehanna along with the threats that face it. Many organizations from the Susquehanna’s headwaters to its mouth in the Chesapeake Bay are excited to hear what flows from our student advocates. River Stewards, a Susquehanna-focused organization, funded the excursion in its entirety. This surely demonstrates the value of the work our students do!

English Students ready for Field Research
English Students ready for Field Research

The trip was attended by Lindsey Campbell, Kaitlyn Cicchino, Maddy Giardina, Rylan Harvey, Karen Layman, Dylan Marciano, Amanda Mooney, Julia Snyder, and Caitlyn Tynes.

The students set off on a calm evening in early October, taking double kayaks from south of Wrightsville down to Fishing Creek and back in the section of the Susquehanna known as Lake Clarke. Because it is between two dams, this part of the river is much more like a lake than what normally comes to mind when we think of rivers. This lake-like stretch has caused the students to think of how differently they may have to communicate environmental issues to citizens located along the banks of Lake Clarke among lighthouses, seagulls and jetskis than they would in the river’s northern reaches of grass islands, exposed rocks and riffles.

These kinds of rhetorical issues regarding context and audience really come to life when you’re out there in the middle of the river. You can’t help but imagine the native Susquehannock settlements of the distant past and their dugout sycamore canoes juxtaposed with the brightly-colored kayaks we floated. You look to the top of Turkey Hill where a landfill, a processing plant and windmills now have the high ground and then your eyes focus on the mottled white of a swooping osprey. You come ashore and the ground feels different; it’s not just your soggy shoes, it’s the sense of being part of the sweeping flows of time and place that we as individuals can passively float or choose to paddle against.

–Justin Mando

Photo credit: Dylan Marciano for panorama of Susquehanna

Susky - Lake Clarke

The world needs the next generation of Rachel Carsons

Pennsylvania native Rachel Carson transformed the world of scientific communication by taking a technical issue and making it public like no one had done before. Carson’s evocative writing remains a gold standard for those wishing to raise the alarm about problems related to the environment and human health. In her 1962 book, Silent Spring, Carson catapulted a problem previously contained within the scientific community to the center of public discussion. This problem was the use of DDT, a pesticide in wide use. Carson and other scientists found these chemicals to have devastating effects on life, from songbirds to humans. Rather than let scientists and politicians hash out a response out of the public eye, Carson wrote Silent Spring, a clear and effective account of these discoveries in the form of an apocalyptic narrative. The “silent spring” she wrote of would be the sound of spring absent of life if we did not act.

Rather than write to the world as a scientist using scientific discourse, Carson opens her book with an idyllic scene of peace and tranquility. Her first line reads, “There once was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” Describing this pastoral setting, Carson quickly shifts to a blight that falls upon the community as “some evil spell” that kills animals indiscriminately. Capturing her readers’ minds, she explains, “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves.” So begins a book-length appeal for humans to take notice and change their ways, an appeal that made an enormous impact on the issue of DDT and environmentalism more broadly.

Rachel Carson, Environmentalist and Science Writer
Rachel Carson, Environmentalist and Science Writer

Rachel Carson is a paragon of scientific writing. She both effectively communicated within her domain and, when the stakes were high, shaped public perception of issues that were otherwise invisible to people using rhetorical tactics well outside of the scientist’s typical set of strategies. Take this excerpt from Silent Spring that directly engages the ethical dimension of scientific progress:

“Some would-be architects of our future look toward a time when it will be possible to alter the human germ plasm by design…It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.”

Is this any less resonant today? Substitute “insect spray” with any number of technical hazards created by “would-be architects of our future” and you can see the need for communicators that know how to engage citizens. Alternatively, we have many technologies to cherish that are the fruits of scientific progress, truly deserving of positive public attention. Like Rachel Carson, and perhaps like you, science writers shape public perceptions of scientific progress.

Not only do science writers shape public understanding of scientific progress, they also communicate effectively with other scientists. To advance your career as a biologist, meteorologist, physicist, chemist, or in any other science discipline, you must be able to write. The gears of career and scientific progress turn through published research findings and research grant proposals.

To help Millersville’s students achieve success as scientists and to open new doorways for students interested in being a liaison between scientists and the public, the English Department is proud to offer a new Advanced Writing course in Science Writing. This course will cover both the demands on scientists as they communicate within their fields and as they reach out to the public. If you find this particularly compelling, Millersville is also offering a new Multidisciplinary Studies (MDST) degree in Science Writing.

The world needs effective communicators of scientific progress and threat so that members of the public can be well informed of the issues that shape all of our lives. Just as Rachel Carson used writing to challenge an industry by making a technical issue a public one, you too can shape the world through science writing.

Have you always been fascinated by scientific discovery? Are you a scientist yourself? Would you like to learn about an up-and-coming field of study that could lead to internships and job opportunities? Are you looking to take care of that Advanced Writing requirement in a way that will directly impact your career prospects? If so, consider signing up for ENGL 319: Science Writing.

— Justin Mando

New Major: Science Writing

Millersville Offers New MDST: Science Writing (MDST Science Writing cut sheet)

Students with complementary interests in science and writing have a new path to take at Millersville, the MDST Science Writing. In this program, students will develop science specializations that they can deepen and put to use through writing. This program provides skills that are in high demand and that can help students become strong voices to support environmental causes, technological understanding, and science advocacy.

Today, many professional science organizations push their members to develop communication skills. The same is true for industries. By knowing both science and effective writing, students will graduate with expertise that is in high demand in careers as journalists, science & technology bloggers, communication specialists in medical and health agencies as well as governmental regulatory agencies. The energy industry and non-governmental organizations focused on the environment also need writers with a good grasp on science.

Science Writing On Site
Science Writing On Site

The MDST Science Writing will provide foundational understanding of two key cores. The first core provides journalism courses, including newly developed courses in Science Writing and Environmental Advocacy Writing. More English courses are also under development. The second core asks students to specialize in two of four science disciplines (earth science, biology, physics, and/or chemistry).

The MDST Science Writing draws from advisors in each of the connected science disciplines and is headed in English by Dr. Justin Mando. Dr. Mando, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, was recently hired for his specialization in science writing. His research focuses on public engagement in scientific controversies, specifically the debate over hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania. He is also an avid fly angler and, since arriving in Lancaster County, has fallen in love with the Susquehanna River.

The MDST Science Writing will not only provide in-class skills, but also experiences in the field to work as both scientists and writers tasked with communicating findings to concerned parties. Dr. Mando plans to begin a Susquehanna River Project that invites interdisciplinary participants to engage with the river to raise awareness of threats, of its value to our community, and of the lessons it has to teach us as researchers and writers.

—-Dr. Justin Mando, Assistant Professor of Science and Technical Writing