Southwest Environment

Stories written by University of Arizona students

Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science
About the Course

Translating Environmental Science (Spring 2010)
Soil, Water and Environmental Science (SWES) 415/515

Also cross listed in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment

Description of course
Scientists speak a different language, a dialect filled with abstract symbolism, hypotheses and references to Latin and Greek. In this course, students learn journalism techniques to translate environmental science topics into language a layperson could appreciate. The writing concepts will apply to any field of science, as well as public reports and media outlets including newspapers, magazines and web-based publishing. Students also learn techniques for expressing numbers in reader-friendly language. Students will “workshop” in groups and work closely with the instructor to produce publication-quality articles on assigned or agreed-upon topics for specific markets chosen by student.

A “B” or better in ENGL 102 and any college-level math class.

Course Objectives
By the end of the course, the student will be expected to:

  1. apply reporting techniques to translate scientific concepts and research into text that can be understood by the general public;
  2. understand how this interpretive writing fits into the larger fields of science and journalism, including from an ethical standpoint; and
  3. produce two or more articles of publishable quality.  

This class will have the following components:

  1. Training in writing and reporting techniques used by journalists and translational scientists to convey information to the public. Topics include word choice, style and grammar, active vs. passive tense, interview techniques, appropriate use of quotes, and fact-checking.  
  2. Recognizing how environmental writing fits into the larger fields of journalism and translational science.  Understanding how to convert available information into usable facts and statistics.
  3. Working iteratively to produce work worthy of publication, including by sharing critiques in smaller groups that will be stable throughout the semester and in one-on-one interactions with the instructor. 

Teaching Format
Course topics will be addressed using the following methods:

Required Texts

Students will also be required to read additional materials selected by instructor (available via internet or the library) or obtained by student to support research on assigned or agreed-upon topics.

Required or Special Materials
Students should have access to computers with Word and Excel programs, and a hand-held calculator.

Extracurricular activities
Students can expect to conduct interviews and/or attend public lectures outside of class as relevant to their writing assignments. In addition, students can expect to arrange meetings with members of their group to supplement in-class workshop interactions.

Grading Policy
Please see section on Assignments.          

Grade Distribution    For Undergraduates           For Graduates
A = 90% to 100%              360 to 400 points               405 to 450 points
B = 80% to 89.9%             320 to 359 points               360 to 404 points
C = 70% to 79.9%             280 to 319 points               315 to 359 points
D = 60% to 69.9%             240 to 279 points               270 to 314
E = Below 60%                  Below 240 points                Below 270

Students may receive 10 points of extra credit by attending a lecture and writing a 300-500 word description on relevant points. The instructor will provide a list of options, and students are also encouraged to make suggestions for the class or as individuals. The instructor may choose to allow additional extra credit for interested students near a grade borderline.

Attendance Policy
Students will receive 4 points for each day of attendance. Thus a student can miss no more than a few class sessions without jeopardizing an A grade. Students will be expected to participate in discussions during class time. Extenuating circumstances will be considered, particularly with appropriate documentation.  

Assignments, Undergraduate Credit



Points Each

Total Points

Total Points

Writing assignments




+ 50 = 180

Workshop critiques

























The number of writing assignments includes earlier drafts that will be submitted for points as the three articles are refined during the semester. Students will also be required to provide written critiques of drafts by the other students in their groups.

Homework will include exercises on writing, reporting, grammar and style, basic math and conveying numerical and scientific information in a reader-friendly format.

Quizzes will relate to topics from readings, particularly the textbook and stylebook.
The “final” will involve a quiz worth 20 points, so students who do not need those points will have the option of not taking it—as long as their work submitted for publication is completed satisfactorily.

Because the work builds on previous work throughout the semester, students will lose 2 points per unexcused class session that writing assignments, workshop comments or homework exercises are handed in late.

Assignments, Graduate Credit
In addition to the assignments described above, graduate students will be required to produce an additional final project on a topic of their choice. Options include writing a feature article, a comparative analysis, a grant proposal or a public report on an appropriate topic for a specified audience. Graduate students could also choose to undertaken some online publishing of the class products for their final project, which will be worth 50 points.

Graduate students also will face higher expectations regarding their own writing and their reviews of their peers’ work.    

Instructor Information
Dr. Melanie Lenart