Paper and Project Assignments

Intro Astronomy Historical Paper
This assignment, to research a pre-telescopic astronomical discovery, has two main goals. One, I want students to learn that the modern sense of science is, in many ways, really quite ancient. And two, I want to prepare students for their term long observing projects by making them dig into a topic of observational astronomy. This paper is due one week into the term, which is awfully fast, but that's set by the second goal and the need that they see this before picking their projects.
Secondary goals include learning when to cite sources and how to evaluate both sources and the work of others. (In this case, the subjects of evaluation are long-dead, so that tends to lower the risk of ruffling feathers, happily.)
Overall, this project has been pretty successful so far. Students are often a little confused about where to get sources (I push them towards our librarians pretty hard, but they don't always believe me until too late.) This past year, I made a special push for them to consider non-Western topics (I pointed out that I know more about the Greeks and Romans than the Chinese or Maya, so that probably leads to me being more aware of holes in their research. This had the desired effect.) The result was more than half the class telling about topics I hadn't previously known about. It was fantastic.
Opinion Essays
This assignment (as well as its sequel), one of my favorites, came out of a growing frustration with op-ed peices in the news media and how poorly reasoned and supported their arguments were. I realized that although science classes aren't the only place students can and should learn these skills, we bring a useful viewpoint. In particular, we can help teach students how and when to use data to support their cases. Using data isn't as easy as quoting a number, either, in requires providing context and honesty requires not cherry-picking studies or values. (It's not always obvious that we're doing that when we're trying to create an argument about something we believe.)
I've offered versions of these assignments many terms (five by my count), so the assignment has evolved in time. I've learned to be explicit about expectations and how to make a persuasive, but honest, argument. I've also come to realize that studens need to understand the goal isn't entirely to persaude the reader, but also to convince a hostile reader that even if you're not right, your view is reasonable.
This assignment is two pages long, maximum. I do this for seveal reasons. First, logistically it's far more manageable to grade sixty two-page papers than longer ones. (Or, equivalently, I can give them each more time.) Second, it's more realistic to impose a fairly strict page limit since most opinion pieces that are likely to get widely read are short. Third, students feel much less panicked going into this assignment if it's short; the trick (and the fouth point) is that it works the opposite way: this is much harder piece to write than a longer essay. But being succint is a valable skill to learn in writing and one that students (often used to filling space to reach page requirements) struggle with.
Revolutions in Physics Historical Papers
For Revolutions in Physics, I require two papers (they student is free to choose which two of the four units to write about, however) on historical topics. The topics can either be how the revolutions (Greek/Roman science, Renaissance/Englightenment, Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics) were influences by particular events, people, or trends (in art, philosophy, technology, etc.) or how those revolutions affected other human endevours (art, philosophy, politics, etc.). I really enjoy this assignment because every student draws in their own interests; many write about topics related to their majors. I've learned about topics in philosophy, art, and political science that I probably would never have gotten around to learning on my own. And I have definitely found that students appareciate how interconnected ther various disciplines really are.
Term Long Observing Projects
This is the replacement for a final exam in my intro astro classes. The project is intended primarily to teach students that they can ask and answer their own questions about the universe and use scientific techniques on their own and to teach them how to approach real problems (as opposed to many labs where we tell them the questions and how to answer them). Students come up with a whole range of research, ranging from the straight-forward ("how does Jupiter move?" or "where does the Sun set?") to the more creative ("Does the color of the Moon depend on the phase?" or "when is it really dark out?"). Many students bring their other interests to their projects; I've had students use their high-end SLR cameras to take quality photos, students use their artistic talents to paint or draw their observations, a student use a video camera to capture the Moon and isolate the frames with the crispest images, and students record sunspots because they were fascinated by aurorae.
One thing I find strong about this assignment is that most students can do it without too much stress, but it allows them room to stretch if they wish to. I'm still working on assuring students that it will be OK when, around 4th week, they discover that clouds happen, but I think I'm getting better at that. (I think having more history to draw on helps. I can tell students that I've seen the bad weather before and everyone passed then, so...)
Through somewhat hard experience, I've learned to build in check-ins with me so that students don't get too far afield before I can warn them off. The first check-in, which is required to be in-person in my office, also serves to get them to find my office. I have a theory that once they've done it once, a barrier has been overcome and they are more likely to come find me later.
I could talk more about this. This project takes a lot of my time over the term, but also provides me with a lot of pleasure in seeing the results and I love to discuss it with people. I'm still trying to figure out how I can adapt it other classes because I think it has a lot of potential.
Wiki Entry Project
The goal of this assignment is for students to learn how to organize and present information. I've flirted with the idea of doing something like this for years, but always shied away. Finally, over the summer of 2011, I was involved in evaluating student writing portfolios for a few research projects. The specific projects let me to notice things I didn't otherwise notice, at least not as clearly. One of those things was that our students were not generally that good at organizing information in a coherent way, with like data grouped together and connecting information as appropriate.
The wiki assignment seemed like a great response. Students have to write about their solar system body on their wiki page, but they also have to connect their information up to other bodies and to more general topics (like volcanism, for example). The advantage of a website (a wiki makes the editing a lot easier, but that's about it) is that hyperlinks allow students to explicitly connect ideas and create a non-linear flow of information. (They're very used to creating a linear flow in papers, but that organization is meant for a specific purpose. The wiki audience is likely to be reading it for a variety of reasons and needs, forcing a broader view of how to present the material.)
I have also noted to students, both in class and in the assignment, that Wikipedia is not generally a good example of science writing. The science pages are somewhat poorly organized and, worse, the authors often seem more intent on impressing readers with their illigence than they are concerned with being helpful. The result is an inappropriate sense of depth in many articles, often spending most of their time on graduate level arcana rather than simple explanations and widely useful information or explanations. My students are being encouraged to write at an eighth-grade level and to avoid this pitfalls.
I'm still learning how this assignment plays out and how to better structure it. At the moment, I have encouraged all the groups to meet with me in person in the next week, but I'm not requiring it. So far, most groups have seemed eager to meet, so I'm hopeful. Visit again in about 2 months to find out how this project went!
A Guide to Writing Research Reports
This document was the result of realizing (while reading papers describing students' own independent research) that I didn't really give them enough guidance on how to write up your own research. This was also motivated by reading sophomore writing portfolios and seeing a lot of lab reports that were frankly pretty hard to read and recognizing that it was probably the faculty's fault (mine included at least as much as anyone!) for not explaining how writing up a scientific result differs from, say, and English paper.
This document is meant to augment student understanding of writing; it's a guide to navigating the differences between science writing and other writing that they've done in their lives. The most important point (one I keep emphasizing in class) is that with a research result the goal is to explain what you found, not what you did. Students have been conditioned to show their instructors that they did the lab/experiment in order to get credit so we need to help them see that from now on, they're not trying to earn credit but to explain a significant finding.
Most of the rest of the document is style information and guidance on how to make plots useful and not misleading. Also, to avoid tables at almost all costs because I've noticed that students have an instinct to include tables of raw data in their documents and don't always see that that presentation format is almost entirely undigestable.
I'm using this document for the second time as I write this. I've noted some success in my introductory physics classes, although I think more lab papers are required to really give them time to hone the new skills. I need to experiment more, I think.

Weiss John