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Exploring How and Why Scientists Communicate

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This post was written by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence.

When teachers tell their students to “write like a scientist,” students might understand it as requiring them to take formulaic steps, like stating questions and hypotheses, or recording procedures in a certain format for an experiment. However, the concept of writing like a scientist may be more broad and complex than students might think. Exploring scientists’ writings and drawings, such as those in the Scientific Data and Observations primary source set and its related ebook, can give students an idea of how and why scientists record their observations, thinking, and learning.

Allow each student to choose a primary source from the set.  Use the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool to support their observations. Then ask students:

  • How did the author organize the information?
  • In what ways did the author use text, symbols, charts, or diagrams to convey an idea?

Students looking at the Geological Map of the United States may notice that information is organized visually on a map and uses colors and a key to convey information. Students analyzing the letter from Alexander Graham Bell to his wife may notice the use of written description and illustration to organize information. Labels and arrows are also used to communicate ideas.

Statistical atlas of the United States based on the results of the ninth census 1870
Geological map of the U.S.

Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Mabel Bell May 4, 1917.
Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Mabel Bell May 4, 1917.

Call upon students to think about how the organization of information and the elements used affects their ability to understand the ideas presented. It is important to note that students do not need a complete understanding of the ideas being conveyed to reflect on this aspect of the primary source. Ask them to look at the chosen source and consider:

  • How do the elements and organization of the writing or illustrations make the ideas easier to understand?
  • What other format could have been used to share the information?

For example, students can look at the geological map and notice patterns in the colors that wouldn’t be evident in other formats. Notice that some colors showing ancient rock layers follow geographic features such as rivers or mountains that are visible and familiar; other colors reveal layers that correspond with changing sea levels or movement of glaciers. Imagine if the author had chosen to express the information in another format, for example, a table with corresponding lists of states where evidence of that period could be found; making the connection between geological period and geographic feature would be more difficult, and maybe impossible.

The intended audience can also play a role in how the information is organized. Encourage students to explore this idea by asking:

  • Who do you think was the audience for this scientific work?
  • How might the audience affect how the author organizes the information?

Broaden students’ exposure to scientific writing by comparing various sources from the set. Those who began with Bell’s letter might compare it to a labeled illustration. Different Species of Bats, for example, uses illustration. Students can discuss the type of organization used and how it communicates a scientific idea.

To extend the activity, students can choose a source and revise it for a different audience or choose a piece of their own scientific writing and revise it to reflect a deeper understanding of audience, organization, and communication.

What primary source in the Scientific Data and Observations primary source set do you want to explore?


  1. I teach the “Nature of Science” which discusses how science ideas are always changing. Communication in Science shows how theories are exchanged and changed over time.

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