Essay

Crafting a textbook for nonscience majors

Patricia Melloy
By Patricia Melloy
July 27, 2023

Are you committed to sharing scientific knowledge? Consider writing about it for a general audience. It’s one of the most important things a scientist can do — after conducting experiments and analysis. Given the current climate of mistrust of experts, delivering your message without coming off as preachy or pedantic can be a challenge. I recently practiced this balancing act while writing “Viruses and Society,” a textbook for nonscience majors.

I chose to start, as many of us do when planning our courses, with learning outcomes. What do citizens need to know about viruses to make everyday decisions for themselves, their families and their community? Of course, a textbook cannot cover every virus, but which ones are the most historically or culturally relevant to college students? What are the most important points that every young voter should know when evaluating a new public health policy?

I put a priority on practical knowledge. If students saw a topic as relevant to their lives, my textbook might engage them, even if they had signed up for the course merely to check the box on their science requirement. I also hoped the book would contribute to information literacy, so I included many scientific sources on viruses and related topics with each chapter.

Then, I moved on to issues of clarity and accessibility. What level did I want to use for the scientific vocabulary and explanations? My reference point was a nonscience majors’ textbook that I had used in my own classroom for several years, “Biology Today: An Issues Approach” by Eli Minkoff and Pamela Baker. Where possible, I presented viruses as a story with characters and actions, so the reader could envision some of the real people behind the science. (In “Writing Science in Plain English,” author Anne E. Greene recommends this practice.)

The layout of the figures also mattered, as well as how they complemented the explanations in the text. When creating discussion questions at the end of each chapter, I included links to videos or web pages to give students with different attention spans and learning styles other options for reviewing the material.

After producing a draft, I asked a couple of colleagues to review the vocabulary and concept explanations to see if the level was right for a nonscience major in college. I plan to gather additional feedback for any future editions.

It also seemed worthwhile to focus on my own “aha” moments — such as when I first grasped the concept of herd immunity and how it builds a wall of protection for those in the community who cannot be vaccinated due to their age or medical status. I highlighted common misconceptions among students, such as the mistaken idea that an antibiotic works against a virus.

Writing the textbook also involved reflection on how to address controversial topics, such as vaccine hesitancy, without appearing to judge certain parties in the controversy. I tried out some of the content in a current topics course the first summer I was working on the textbook. This real-world testing helped me narrow discussion and comparison points to those that drew the most response and discussion from the students.

Finally, I decided it was important to talk about the process of making scientific discoveries. For example, I covered how long it took to discover the pathogen behind the 1918 influenza A pandemic. I explored how the path of the poliovirus through the body was hotly debated, not to mention the road to the polio vaccine itself. I wanted to present the inherent messiness of science.

What’s more, I sought to show that scientific inquiry involves conducting detective work without all the facts or the technology to interpret the facts that are known. Researchers also cannot predict how a biological system will change over time. Scientific understanding is always a work in progress, and as new technologies emerge, what we know about viruses is revised. There is nothing wrong with that. From the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been updating our knowledge of SARS-CoV-2. This process would continue long after the textbook was published.

I found it so rewarding to see the textbook completed. From beginning to end, my editors let me make the project my own. I look forward to using “Viruses and Society in the classroom and revising it in the future, based on feedback from its users — students and colleagues in the field.

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Patricia Melloy
Patricia Melloy

Patricia Melloy is a professor of biological sciences at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the faculty adviser of the university’s ASBMB Student Chapter.

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