“Conventional perception rarely entertains the notion that there is in fact a critical need for excellent writing in STEM”
When I was in high school, I often spent a great deal of time mulling over the question of what my academic end goal was. Like many students, I was ready to study hard, but I was equally eager to identify where exactly I wanted my studies to take me. We often want to place the success to which we aspire in a specific context, and I was no different from my peers in wanting to have an idea of where my unique skill set and passions were taking me. It was while in the midst of completing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (DP) that I came to discover my fascination with clinical medicine. A few years later, here I am working on an undergraduate degree in anatomy and cell biology with dreams of attending medical school.
Truthfully, knowing now how specific my goals for the future were, it’s difficult to believe that prior to high school, I never anticipated being in any sort of scientific career. My favourite classes were usually English and history, and my favourite assignments were often writing ones. When I did get particularly involved in a science or mathematics assignment, it often indicated that some component of the assignment involved committing my ideas to words and being able to paint a linguistic picture. Even aspects of my life such as sports became deeply enmeshed in my writing experiments. In fact, my creativity, activity, service (CAS) project itself was ultimately a blog that I wrote documenting and reflecting upon two of my hockey seasons.
For the longest time, I felt that my natural tendencies towards writing-based assignments were a sign that there wasn’t a place for me in STEM. What role could someone whose biggest love was writing possibly play in a field like science? It was not until IB that I ever imagined that my love of writing could be anything more than a very niche skill confined to the general academic realm of language, literature, history and the arts. Conventional perception rarely entertains the notion that there is in fact a critical need for excellent writing in STEM, and for the longest time, I too fell victim to this misconception.
“Where specializations and subjects intersect, we find the birth of new, increasingly specific channels to pursue our general understanding of the world.”
One of the most alluring things about university-level academics has always been, at least to me, the interdisciplinary nature of the education these institutions provide. It often seems that in the pursuit of newer and brighter knowledge, particular success is found at the junctions between different disciplines. Where specializations and subjects intersect, we find the birth of new, increasingly specific channels to pursue our general understanding of the world. But, as IB proves, this type of education doesn’t need to be exclusively reserved for higher education. There is a great deal of merit in the idea that much earlier to university, students deserve to learn that their academic skills are able to be multi-functional, when so often they are categorized and isolated in practice.
One of the most concrete examples of the potential benefit is the way the IB programme develops a student’s writing skills. Typically, we would never associate a writing assignment with a mathematics class. Yet by completing an internal assessment (IA) for maths, students are challenged to not only demonstrate their proficiency of the subject through problem solving and direct calculation but are also taught to communicate their ideas and thought processes in the form of a structured academic paper. The result is a deeper comprehension and appreciation for the theory itself (thus bolstering calculative abilities too) and, just as wonderfully, enhancing and broadening the ability to share and pass ideas along to a wider audience.
When we meditate on just how important communication of ideas is to the development of science, technology and mathematics, it’s hard to see why students are so scarcely taught to see that writing skills hold value far beyond merely the scope of book reports and poetry analysis (as important as those types of academic exercises are). Science, after all, is as a field built upon the notion of a collective inheritance and subsequent improvement of ideas. Scientists pass on knowledge and each collectively add their insights, one on top of another, in order to painstakingly construct what we know to be modern foundational scientific knowledge. Having a brilliant scientific, mathematical, technological or engineering mind is not solely based on quantitative or calculative thinking. What is of arguably equal importance is the ability to translate one’s ideas, inclinations and thought processes into words with enough skill and efficiency that we can effectively teach and learn from one another. After all, what good is it if the ideas being formulated by brilliant young people remain confined within the walls of their individual minds?
“Writing truly is an academic skill with a distinctly advantageous role in any field or discipline”
To be able to write is to have a voice, and it is therefore as applicable to any student’s path as anything. While completing my IB coursework, I came to the life-changing realization that my love of writing stemmed from a broader passion, which was to not only ponder questions of personal interest but to also compile and share the resultant ideas with others. When I began to suffer from concussion-related issues while in high school, my greatest form of therapy came from writing about my experiences. What began as brief narrative description of my personal experiences soon expanded into a desire to learn more about the injury itself and ultimately, to write more about its role in the greater context of sports medicine. For my extended essay, I ended up choosing to offer my interpretations on what could be learned about the differences in concussion vulnerability between male and female athletes based on the existing medical literature. It was incredibly fun to write, and to date remains one of my favourite academic projects I’ve ever completed.
Experiences such as these led me to realize that I did love science and that what I especially loved was drawing upon others’ ideas, forming my own conclusions and communicating everything I learned to other people. Fortunately, through my experience in completing the IB curriculum, I found that ‘writing’ isn’t a tool unique to a language class, and it never needs to be seen as an isolated ability by any student with any passions. There exist several forms―literary writing, scientific writing, mathematical writing―the list goes on. Writing truly is an academic skill with a distinctly advantageous role in any field or discipline, and it is a critical component of the IB learner’s central toolbox.
Shreya Mahasenan is a graduate of Hillcrest High School in Midvale, Utah, United States. She is currently an undergraduate student at McGill University in Montréal, Canada, majoring in anatomy and cell biology and minoring in political science. When she’s not studying, you can usually find her playing hockey (on an outdoor rink if possible!), playing guitar or listening to podcasts. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.
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