In most disciplines, the ability to write is necessary in order to send notifications about new findings or research. For undergraduate Chemistry students, the ability to clearly express yourself is needed when authoring a laboratory report, answering a short response exam question, etc.

For this reason and because I want my General Chemistry students to see that Chemistry is a part of their daily life—not just stuff in a textbook—I require a writing assignment with two sections of 300 students. The assignment is submitted to Turnitin to discourage plagiarism. I do allow students to see their originality report and to upload an edited version, without penalty before the deadline. Here are the instructions I give students:

You need to pick one topic from everyday life or from your major and report on the chemistry behind it. You MUST have 3 references (not Wikipedia and at least one from a printed book or journal, although it may also be on-line). Google Scholar is a good search engine to find articles. The report should tell a complete story in a casual voice; this is NOT a technical paper, so no quotes or citations. I will assume all of the info came from your references. You could presume that you are talking to your friend Pat, who has also taken CHEM 101, to explain what you have found in your references about the topic. The paper should be about 1 page long (about 400-700 words without references/headers). You should type up your short essay in MS word. You may use APA, MLA or ACS format for references. The written report is due on Tuesday, XXX at midnight, but you will need to submit it earlier to give you feedback about the originality in time for you to edit and resubmit before the deadline.

This assignment is only about 2% of the final grade, and is graded for being on time, having the required references and word limits and having passed the guidelines for plagiarism with only common lists, chemical names and references highlighted. While the essay must be clear and understandable, I don’t score for grammar.

I have found that this assignment must be given early, such that students have at least one month before the due date or more—this discourages attempts to copy. I also try to give a few suggestions for topics, like to consider the additives in animal feed if your major is Animal Science, or to consider new drugs for asthma if a family member has this condition.

I encourage students to have fun with the assignment. I do get some essays that are humorous, some written as a play with dialogue, others that are a conversation with Pat (a non-gendered name), and some that are pretty dry. In the evaluations, students mention this assignment as a positive part of the course, and the majority indicates that they gained from writing. The essay also provides a sample of student writing to use for any requested recommendations. I have done a similar assignment for over 15 years.

My fellow Faculty Partners have applied a variety of writing exercises to their respective disciplines. Examine their stories to develop your own strategy.