Tuesday, August 18, 2009
The Island of Science Writing: An Introduction
Appledore Island, located off the coast of Maine, is home to the Shoals Marine Laboratory. The lab is both a school and a research center. Students come by boat to island to spend anywhere from a week to a month taking classes on subjects ranging from shark biology to underwater archaeology. Meanwhile, researchers use the lab as their base of operations for field work and experiments. Students and scientists together work under the watchful eye and the all-day squawking of the island's colonies of gulls.
In August 2009 I came to Appledore to teach a course on science writing. The class was made up of undergraduates, just-graduated students wondering what they were going to do with their lives, and a couple full-time writers considering making a shift of career.
Over the course of the week the students were introduced to the island's intertidal zone, went hunting for hagfish, and visited an archaeological site on neighboring Smuttynose Island, where thousands of years of history is preserved just below the grass. The students then had to write a 500-word piece about each subject.
The students then dove into their final project, a 1500-word story. They could expand one of their 500-word pieces, or take advantage of other stories-in-waiting on Appledore. Some students decided to talk to two teaching assistants who are at the cutting edge of visualizing animals in motion by making 3-D X-ray films. Others chose the bird banders of Appledore, who have banded over 100,000 birds during the migration seasons since 1981. Others struck out on their own, finding stories I didn't even know were waiting to be told.
Science on Shoals is a record of their work. It allows them to complete the journey from research to publication. And it also allows people off the island to enjoy the work of these students and to learn about a remarkable place.
[Update 8/19 8 pm: Changed Appledore to Smuttynose. Thanks, Jim.]