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By Eric Weld   Date: 7/27/11 Bookmark and Share

The Science of Creative Writing

An artichoke or an onion. Which of these vegetables best reflects your character? Write an essay.

That, in simplified form, is the first task faced by about a dozen girls in ninth through twelfth grades attending Smith’s Summer Science and Engineering Program (SSEP).

Do you see yourself with thick, prickly outside layers with a luscious, rich heart waiting to be discovered? Or is your exterior a series of thin skins underneath which exists a juicy, spicy center?

If the assignment doesn’t seem particularly science related, that is by design.

“I ignore their interests in science altogether,” explains Robert Hosmer, senior lecturer in English language and literature, who devised the course “Experiment and Exploration: A Laboratory for Writers,” and has taught it as part of the SSEP for more than 15 years. “Like science, writing is about observation, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Those are the things we focus on in this course.”

The SSEP hosts about a hundred teenaged girls, who come to Smith from throughout the United States and from 53 foreign countries, primarily to study aspects of science, through courses in biology, chemistry and engineering and intelligent design—and writing. They spend a month at Smith getting a taste of college life, living in campus housing, eating in communal dining rooms, and spending their days in class. Participants take two courses during the program, one at a time, each lasting two weeks.

It is an unusual component of a high school science program to offer an intensive creative writing course, notes Gail Norskey, director of the Center for Community Collaboration, who has coordinated the SSEP since establishing the popular summer program 21 years ago.

But it makes perfect sense, she says. “Scientists aren’t unidimensional people. Science is a creative process. It’s about observing the world and describing it. And this course draws connections between observation, writing and science. As scientists—as creators—it makes sense to have a writing component as part of the SSEP.”

The writing lab is among the most popular in the program curriculum year after year, says Norskey, so much so that it’s difficult to accommodate all the requests for the course.

Participants in Hosmer’s class write between eight and nine essays during the two-week course, reflecting and writing on George Orwell’s essays “Shooting an Elephant” and “Why I Write,” for example, and on Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of a Moth.” They visit Smith’s Botanic Garden, the Smith College Museum of Art and Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst to develop observations into organized words. At the end of the two-week program, they recite their writings as part of a public presentation.

At first, says Hosmer, when he introduces the opening assignment, complete with a fresh onion and artichoke displayed on a table, “some of them think ‘This guy might be crazy.’” Then, as they ponder and work their thoughts into insightful essays, he watches them gain confidence in their ability to express themselves in writing.

“It’s the reason I teach this course,” he says. “I just want them to come away with sharper analysis skills and a sense of what being a writer is about.”

For Rasheeda Luckey, a rising senior at the Young Women’s Leadership School in Philadelphia, it was a desire to improve her writing skills as she approaches the world beyond high school that inspired her interest in the SSEP’s writing workshop.

“This course gave me confidence in how to express myself better,” says Luckey, who presented a moving essay at the end of the writing workshop about a death in her family.“ I think it will assist all types of writing I do from now on.”

The SSEP continues to grow in stature and reputation. This year’s pool of more than 400 applications for about 100 slots is the most ever received by the program. With the assistance of funding from Bechtel, Motorola, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and others (see list of financial benefactors), the SSEP is able to offer financial aid to the majority of its participants.

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