ENGL 379: introduction to professional writing
presentation on a scientific, medical and/or
technical controversy


Increasingly, societies are confronted with problems that are scientific and/or technical. Newspaper headlines on any given day are likely to describe issues in science and technology that arouse questions and invite debate.
As citizens of a democracy, you have a civic duty to respond to such controversies. As communicators, you have a professional responsibility to understand and interpret them.

The research component of this assignment is designed to provide you practice in:

1) library and online research,

2) working collaboratively,

3) thinking critically as regards issues in science and technology and

4) translating scientific and techncal concepts for a lay audience.

The oral component of this assignment is designed to give you experience in:

1) making professional presentations and

2) the use of Microsoft PowerPoint, the industry-standard presentation software.

This assignment should have immediate application for job interviews, and long-term applications for ongoing work (meetings, oral presentations of proposals, etc.)

getting started

possible subjects

There is no shortage of controversies within larger fields of science and technology. Areas of controversies include: cloning, bioterrorism, global warming, stem cell research, nuclear energy, hydraulic fracturing, genetically modified crops, privacy in an electronic age, artificial intelligence, euthanasia and the legal and ethical issues surrounding mood-altering drugs. In recent years students from this course have focussed on regional issues like Cape Wind. A few have ventured into debates in areas of fringe science (extra sensory perception, UFOs and crop circles, for instance).

For other ideas you may wish to look at the last few years of Scientific American, New Scientist or the "Science" section of The New York Times. If you have a partcular interest in fringe science, look at The Skeptical Enquirer.

We will devote a class period to brainstorming subjects.

research strategies

You would be wise begin this assignment by finding a magazine piece on the subject that offers an overview aimed at a general audience. The New York Times Magazine is likely to have published a feature story on any controversy of note. The piece in all likelihood deals with the subject in some depth, and at the same time describes positions from many sides. It is a good place to begin. I recommend that you look to recent books for background and depth, and to recent newspaper pieces, as many of the controversies in the public's awareness are likely to have been changed greatly in a matter of weeks. A Lexis-Nexis search with appropriate keywords will allow you to generate a list of newspaper pieces in chronological order, from which you may fashion a narrative or timeline of the controversy over the course of its life.


The class divides itself into groups of four or five. The members of each group decide among themselves upon a suitable issue. On a specified date they make a formal presentation of the issue to the class. Assume 40 to 45 minutes for the presentation itself, the remainder of class time for questions and answers.


Your grade will be shared by all members of the group, and will be accompanied by a written evaluation. The grade will be based 80% upon my sense of the group's mastery of the subject's breadth and depth, and 20% upon the professionalism of their presentation. On the latter count I will observe four aspects:

overall organization and "smoothness,"
evident level of preparation,
quality and appropriateness of visuals, and
integration of words and visuals.

specific requirements

You must use at least ten PowerPoint slides. I will supply the laptop and projector. Other visual aids (handouts, overhead transparencies and so forth) are optional. Please make sure that at least one member of your group can meet me in the room fifteen minutes before class, so that we have time to load the PowerPoint and rehearse the slideshow.

As a group, you must submit to me a "works cited" page in MLA format on the day of the presentation. There is no other written component of this assignment.

If we/you experience technical difficulties, you will still be required to make the presentation on the assigned day. Forging ahead in the face of glitches is good practice for the professional world, where accidents are fairly common, and a professional audience would not allow you to cancel or postpone. You may take comfort in two aspects relating to such an eventuality. First, I will grade on what you present, not on what is missing. Second, the situation may work to your advantage, especially if you rise to the occasion. An audience witnessing grace under pressure is likely to forgive other errors or weaknesses.