The writing on the wall: More writing courses needed for science majors


Deanna Ferrell Ndworks Website

Deanna Ferrell, senior assistant director of marketing communications for the College of Science (CoS), is what you would call a team player. 
When the college identified a need for more writing courses for CoS majors, Ferrell asked if she could help. 

After all, Ferrell had some relevant teaching experience at Notre Dame. She developed and taught a one-credit course called Principles of Science Communications for the
Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy in the College of Arts and Letters. The class was created to instruct students on how to present easy-to-understand stories on scientific topics.
“That’s being able to write without jargon, being able to write concisely and being able to write descriptively,” Ferrell said.

The associate dean asked her to develop a syllabus for a 3-credit version of the course for the CoS and pitch it to the deans and the directors of undergraduate studies, who unanimously supported Ferrell’s proposal. It then went through the Core Curriculum Committee for approval and was added to the roster of courses. 

Ferrell organized the broader course into three distinct units that introduce science writing skills in the areas of journalism, marketing communications and educational writing. For each unit, Ferrell invited a guest speaker who is an expert in the area to come talk to the students. In general, she describes the course as an “overview class,” as there are many deeper and specific niches in the science writing world to be further explored.

The course is offered for both science and journalism students alike.

“If you’re a science student, you’re able to decipher all of that science a little better, and understand it more. So the science students have that to their benefit where they can describe some of the stuff there. The cons of coming from the science background is that they tend to lean on more jargon, and get bogged down in details. 
“If you are a journalism student, you may have a better feel for the structure of how things should be written. You are less likely to get bogged down in a lot of details that for the lay reader would not be significant. 

“Both sides have pluses and minuses, and it’s interesting to help students from both sides.”

Ferrell was not always a science writer. She studied journalism at Indiana University Bloomington. After graduating from there in 1993 and having two daughters, she gained experience in various writing fields. Most notably, she worked as a newspaper journalist and then spent many years working as a freelance writer, which allowed her the flexibility to work and take care of her kids. She enjoyed crafts — she even minored in art during undergrad — and started a blog that led her to write a book about how to make hair accessories.

Then, at the age of 45, Ferrell decided to return to school for another degree, choosing to attend Johns Hopkins University to pursue a master’s in science writing. When asked what sparked her interest in the field, Ferrell said, “I was always interested in science, and I think one of the main reasons that I did not go into it originally is because math was not my strongest subject in school, and I could do it, but I wasn’t as fast at it as I was with writing. I like to learn about many things, and it seemed that science writing bridged the gap between both interests in writing and in science. Once I realized that there was a career in this field, I realized that was what I wanted to do.”

One of the biggest things Ferrell wishes her students to gain from the course is to, in general, become better writers, beyond writing research papers and journal articles.

“There’s been almost no time in history that is more important to explain science than it is now,” Ferrell said. “There’s a lot of denial of science, as well as misinformation, as we have seen particularly with COVID-19 vaccines. Being able to read studies and talk directly to the public saying, ‘These are the scientific facts,’ without making people feel bad that they don’t understand something, is crucial.” 

The media and ways people consume news and information has changed drastically in the past few decades. In the present, not only are people getting their information from news channels, but social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have become prominent platforms of information as well. However, anyone can make a page or their very own website to share information.

“A lot of these different stations are all very segmented. You’ll have a lot of spillover, a lot of programs, websites that are very far right. You also have some that are very far left. So I really want students to understand that there are sources in the middle and ways to write and communicate in the middle that can educate and help people understand the things that are going on in the world without hype and misinformation. I think that has really been a big thing for me.”

Moreover, there are many careers for students interested in going into science writing in a myriad of specialties, including but not limited to science journalism, technical writing, marketing communications, textbook writing and editing. The course is also a fantastic asset for potential medical school candidates. For students interested in improving their skills and learning more about the many opportunities, Ferrell’s course will be offered again in the fall.

If there is another lesson to come from the course it is this: Take chances when opportunities present themselves. So says
Tammi Freehling, the college’s senior associate director of marketing communications and Ferrell’s supervisor. 
“Deanna heard of a need in the college for more writing-intensive courses, inquired how she might lend her expertise as a science writer to help fill a gap, and now is teaching in addition to writing for the college. It fills a need the college had while providing Deanna with further career satisfaction opportunities,” Freehling said.

Fulfilled is exactly how Ferrell describes her career.