I’m Going into STEM. Why Do I Need to Learn to Write?

A scientist I worked with once said, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an equation is worth a thousand pictures.”

Those of you laughing right now are probably STEM students. You know, Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. You dream big dreams of curing cancer AND the flu. Perhaps you’re already testing machine learning to get a better handle on climate change. You doodle in Greek letters and Arabic numbers and imagine how you’re going to build that city on Mars.

We need you! Dream those big dreams! Tool up, write out your findings and analysis, and save the world!

Wait — “write …”? Isn’t STEM just about lab skills, calculus tricks, or assembling the most beautiful code possible?

No. Taking a few measurements and running the numbers is only part of saving the world. Solving big problems takes teamwork. Always. And working in teams requires communication.

Can you imagine how many bridges would fall down if there was no communication in design planning and construction? Or how slowly medical science would proceed if there was no communication? One thing for sure that would never happen without communication: nothing, not humans and not even robots, would ever land on the Moon or beyond.

Team communication has got to be clear: what you’ve found, what you need others to help with, how these findings are useful. If you’re on the receiving end of instructions, you might have to ask a lot of questions to check that you’re on the right track. Most important to any discovery process is the ability to convince others how much funding you need to complete the task. You don’t get to a trillion dollar valuation without putting some words together.

This means a LOT of writing in every form you can imagine: email, text message, memo, website, lab report, academic journal articles, technical procedure books, speeches with slides, speeches without slides, poster presentations, scripts for important people to read out, the list goes on.

Now, I know that some of you reading this are thinking “Writing is fine for some, but I don’t need it to get my STEM-tastic work done. Labs, building sites, and video conferences run on talking.”

Well, sure, but not everyone wants to or even can talk. How are you going to communicate with them? Also, the larger a project gets, you will have to share information and instructions with people who are not reachable when you need them or when they need you. 

Whenever you discover anything big, people you will never meet will want to know the results. You could, I guess, play a giant game of telephone: talking to experts who know experts who know the sister of that CEO whose daughter just invented that new thing. Or you could write up your findings and post/publish them. Which form do you think is more popular? Which do you think is more effective?

The more practice that you get now in writing, the better your future in STEM. That is why writing classes are required to get into STEM programs. The most important skill that you pick up in writing classes is getting your point across to someone who is not you. Even if it is just your teacher and your peers. If no one can understand what you are trying to say, you are not going to be very successful in STEM. So practice now for greatness later.

Did you ever hear about that scientist who never wrote anything down? Neither did I.

The more practice that you get not writing about STEM will make you better at writing about STEM applications. The key word here is “applications.” Increasingly, the best funding to do STEM things are for problems that stretch across different fields. This means that many different types of experts have to work together on a common project. Think about all the different types of scientists needed to cure cancer. Or develop a hydrogen-powered car that’s affordable. Also, the time from discovery to invention to innovation to market often takes years, so STEM-fueled revolutions rely on documents getting written and passed around.

Still not convinced that YOU need to learn how to write? Think that you can just assign that to someone else to do? If your discovery is so groundbreaking, then who else is qualified to explain it accurately? At the very least, you’ll need to read through drafts of someone else’s explanation and make sure that it says what you need it to say. Where do you learn critical reading skills? In writing classes.

You can save the world! I know it! We need many of you to! I look forward to reading about how you did it, thanks to that paper that you wrote.