A common myth is that if you're a math or science person, you're fundamentally different from a creative, wordy person. The perception may come from an oversimplified idea of how the two hemispheres of the brain work: if you're one of the "left-brain" people, you're logical and analytical; "right brain" people are creative. When scientists, engineers, and technology experts identify as "left-brain," they may balk when asked to write. They may believe writing isn't important to their work, that they naturally aren't good at it, and that they should leave writing to the creative types.
However, advanced research in learning theory and neuroscience is dissolving this myth. As we deepen our understanding of how the brain actually works, scientists have learned that the act of writing actually supports and enhances learning and processing of math and science concepts. Yes, you read that right: STEM learning and writing support each other!
Working with the whole brain
Neurological research shows that the two brain hemispheres don't act independently, but in a much more complex, integral fashion. Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Kara D. Federmeier, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explains that math, for example, requires a complex set of operations involving both hemispheres. Counting and remembering multiplication facts require left-brain logic and memory; performing complex calculations and estimating require right-brain abstraction and creativity. It takes both hemispheres to do math.
And yes, that does mean what you think: scientists, engineers, and technology developers don't need to look to creative people for help with writing. They already are creative people.
Writing to learn
Ongoing research into how our brains learn has led educators to develop a model called brain-based learning. This method of teaching advocates engaging all parts of the brain to aid students in learning new concepts. Educators use a combination of teaching techniques that include:
Orchestrated immersion — Working in settings that fully immerse students in the learning exercise
Relaxed alertness — Reducing fear and anxiety of learners while maintaining the educational environment
- Active processing — Giving students a chance to fully absorb information by actively processing it
Dr. Judy Willis, a leading neuroscience researcher and educator, is a huge proponent of this integrated learning method. Her work emphasizes that math and science shouldn't be taught separately from writing. In fact, she recommends integrating writing throughout all coursework.
Willis explains that frequent writing increases the opportunity for active, attentive learning through creative problem-solving. If students are writing for STEM subjects like math and science when learning, the entire brain is engaged and the learning process becomes more enjoyable. And as researchers have proven, the more the whole brain is involved and the more positive the learning experience is, the more likely students will retain the information.
Left or right brain? It's time to throw that old myth out. If you're in a STEM field and writing isn't necessarily your favorite task, think of it as a way to improve learning and how your brain processes information about your area of expertise.