Chapelle investigates 'The Language of Writing in STEM Disciplines'

Distinguished Professor Carol ChapelleISU applied linguistics

A new research project that aims to investigate academic and professional writing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines (STEM) has been awarded an Iowa State University Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research grant.

Carol Chapelle, principal investigator of “The Language of Writing in STEM Disciplines,” explained that writing for general purposes and writing for science are two different ballgames. This project will study what some of those differences are in order to help students in STEM disciplines learn to write effective reports, proposals, research articles and other types of texts that are used in their disciplines. To write successfully, students need to learn the unique lexical patterns and syntax found in their respective STEM disciplines.

It's not just vocabulary “When writing about a scientific topic, it’s not just vocabulary, the right science word, or verb tense,” said Chapelle, Distinguished Professor in Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of applied linguistics. “It  has a language of its own. The syntactic and lexical patterns are different, and you have to know how to use those patterns to effectively communicate in your field.”

The goal is to create a national center of scholarship to conduct research on linguistic practices in STEM disciplines, to improve pedagogy of writing in STEM disciplines, and to develop and apply computational methods for analysis and assessment of discipline-specific writing. It’s an important issue for both teaching and learning, Chapelle said.

“We have students who are trying to present research but don’t control the language of science yet. When students graduate with a Ph.D., the first thing they typically have to do is write a research article, which is very difficult.”

The challenge becomes greater when a student’s first language isn’t English, which Chapelle said applies to about a third of students in Iowa State’s graduate programs.  In view of the importance of STEM language, surprisingly little systematic linguistic research has been conducted that can be used to help students, she said.

“With more flow across national boundaries and more students coming to the United States to go to school, the variety of people who take graduate courses has grown,” she said. “When you increase the number and variety of people who have access to graduate-level education, you need to better codify what the linguistic practices are.”

Timely for STEM “Carol Chapelle’s research initiative is so timely for STEM fields,” said Beate Schmittmann, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It is very important for students in STEM to accurately and effectively communicate their research as well as the broad impacts of their work to wide audiences. This not only will increase understanding and support from the public, it will enable Iowa State researchers to better communicate their work and, thus, better compete for external research funds.”

The project will receive up to $100,000 for the 2013-2014 academic year, which will support the work of Chapelle, Volker Hegelheimer and Elena Cotos (both faculty in applied linguistics) as well as William Graves (biology), Malika Jeffries-EL (chemistry), and Leslie Potter (engineering). The goal for the team is to write grant proposals drawing upon cross-disciplinary expertise, which will be fostered through workshops, a symposium, focus groups, a conference, networking events and other activities.

“The Language of Writing in STEM Disciplines” is one of seven Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research Awards. Three awards were given to projects in the College of Liberal Art and Sciences, including “ISU Crop Bioengineering Consortium” (Martin Spalding, principal investigator) and “Identifying Potential RNA Therapeutic Targets in Infectious Disease” (Drena Dobbs, principal investigator).