Teaching Engineers to Blog?

I got a request for advice from Maryam, an old undergrad committee-comrade-in-arms, which I have mangled for clarity:

To make a long story short, I'm co-teaching a communication class to engineers and I want to introduce them to science blogging. I'm planning to have them write brief essays about classic science papers (similar to the Beginnings of Immunofluoresence), and then post the essays to a class blog.

The main instructor of the class is a rhetorician, so we put emphasis on rhetorical situations and interpersonal communication. I wanted to introduce blogging because it's a new and growing avenue for discussions about science/engineering, and there's room for an ongoing dialog between the speaker and the audience that's absent in more traditional forms of communication.

I'm not sure how to introduce them to the notion of blogging, though. I'm sure they're familiar with LJ/Facebook/other personal journaling avenues, but they may never have ventured into science or other thematic blogging communities. My own discovery of the blogosphere happened in fits and starts so I don't think I can rely on my own experience to explain it to them.

So...I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how to introduce blogging to a classroom audience. How would you explain to a layperson what blogging is, and why people do it for free?

My rather off-the-cuff response is below the fold, but I am sure all y'alls can improve on it.

I'm not sure how best to explain what blogs are, except by showing examples. I ran across another class blog a while ago, where students were given a couple of starting points for exploring science blogs (the list of this year's Open Lab winners was one, and I think maybe also scienceblogs.com and Nature Networks) and assigned to comment on the class blog with the URL of a science blog they liked, and what they liked about it. Can't scrape up enough Google-ju today to find it again, though.

As for why people do it for free... I think many people start because they feel passionately about something and want a soapbox, and/or they just like writing as a hobby, but it's the community aspects that become addictive. Blogging is a great way to meet people who are interested in the same things you are interested in (and, bonus, they think you are interesting when you talk about them!).

Oh, also: If you assign a "classic paper" essay, you should think about having your students submit their entries to the Carnival of the Giant's Shoulders! It'd be an easy way to get a bit of public exposure for their entries.

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Mountain Cat has a student geology blog (undergrad?) which might show some idea of format - though they don't seem to have much group interaction through commenting, an important aspect of blogging. It might be hard to assign commenting, but if that aspect is stressed, it could be assessed.

I think the idea of submitting to The Giant's Shoulders is a very good one.

I just started my own blog this year, and I am loving it so far. It is not purely on science, although science takes up a large part of my life so I end up with posts on technical and academic topics fairly often.

As you say, the concept of blogging will not be new to your students. I think your suggestion of looking at current well-done science blogs is excellent, and I would suggest that you encourage commenting on as well as just reading these blogs.

As to why people do it for free, I've just always thought that I spend so many hours at my computer each day anyway, I might as well take 20 minutes I would have been looking at the news and turn it to something productive. It feeds the ego to get comments, so really vanity is the main motivator for doing it for free...

The general concept of science blogging is going to be clear after a few examples (and maybe a list of links on the course webpage). Here are some more specific topics that I at least find confusing.

Ethics of comment moderation. Dealing with trolls without discouraging discussion. Creating the type of forum you want.

Open notebook science vs. research blogging vs. expository blogging, etc.

Good communication strategies for blogs. For example, keeping a sort of "best of" list of representative entries for new readers. I wish more blogs would do that.

As someone new to blogging (and enjoying it immensely), one of the satisfactions is the diversity of what can be included. Yes, there's an underlying theme, but the opportunity to write about the widely-varying but interlinked aspects of that theme - the science, the entertainment, the news and the downright weird - is a big part of the enjoyment, hopefully for readers as well! It's a very different, and more liberating, approach compared to any kind of "professional" writing, but requires its own kind of creativity and discipline.