Elements of style. Writing an EE or IA in Maths, Physics, Bio, Chemistry or ESS, Part 1

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In these pages I will give a few thought and advises an how to write a good IA or EE in maths and physics. I have been a supervisor for a fair share of such works, and I am proud to say that for the EE’s the most common grade my students have got is A.

What I write here comes from plain observing common errors students does do and from common sense. Some tips might sound overly detailed, but in my experience one has a tendency to overlook  small errors if the overall feeling when looking at a text is that it looks rather good.  But the difference between rather good and professional is in the details. The first part is more about general things, and the second part is more about details.

I will, mostly,  not write about the general requirements, as these can be read in the official IB pages Extended Essay and Assessment and Exams but instead of some extra tips that may give your work that extra edge.

Most of this would also be useful in Bio, Chemistry and ESS.

  • Language

 Your work should be a text that is maths or physics oriented. It can still be about almost whatever, but the focus should be on the mathematics or physics, and so on of the topic you are exploring depending on what subject the EE or IA is in. Since your work is not an EE or IA in the subject English, errors in the language will not have an impact on the grade – unless it has an effect on the readability of the text. I don’t have English as my native tongue, and quite many of you are better in English than me, but I have still successfully written works in mathematics and physics, and so can you. This is a short text on suggestions that may make your EE or IA as good as possible.

  •  Do stuff as early as possible

    You will thank yourself in the end. Do labs and/or finding data and or/sources as soon as possible, and see to that you find the important questions you need to ask your teachers and/or your supervisor early on in your work. Also, see to that your first draft will be a basically finished work, since that is the work the supervisor will give written comments on.
  • Write a clear and concise statement or question

On one hand the above is true, but sometimes it is good to avoid being to precise, at least initially. The question should be open enough for your work to grow or shrink depending on how your work is progressing. A statement like “Finding a general formula for solving  cubic equation” has several problems, to start with it is done so many times so it is hard for you to do an independent work. the risk is that it would be an essay about a part of maths history rather than a maths work. Better would possibly be “Finding errors in a YouTube description of  Finding a general formula for solving  cubic equation” . I had a student that did just that as his EE. He wanted his work to be as about the first statement, but after we had some talks about his work, where he mentioned this faulty YouTube derivation of a formula, he changed his topic to the later one. By the way, he succeeded very well and got an A.

Try to create a statement that allows you to “fail” gracefully.  In the above case he was not committed to find and correct all fails in the video (even though he did so). Try to create a statement that allows your work to grow if you find out that what you originally though about was to easy.

Be prepared to change your question/statement if you find out that it will be to hard.  Don’t do so before talking to your teacher/supervisor first though.

You may start with a rather general statement like “On how resistivity is dependent on temperature” but ending with “On how the resistivity of copper

  • Communicate with your teacher/supervisor

The teacher/supervisor is a resource for you – use that resource wisely. Secondly, the teacher/supervisor need to see your progress to be able to honestly sign the coversheet.

  •  Keep a Logbook

    I strongly suggest you keep a logbook of some kind. Dedicate a notebook for your EE  or IA and/or have some folder on your computer where you keep all EE/IA related files. Here you write down ideas, thing that a teacher or friend have said that might help and so on. It is so easy to forget what you – when you remember it – don’t think you will forget.
  •  Keep track of sources

As soon as you find some interesting text in a book, or somewhere on the net. Write down where and/or bookmark the text (and write it down in your logbook too). It is often surprisingly hard to find our way back to a good source. If it is an online source it might sometimes be close to impossible to find your way back – I know this from my own experience.

  • Use a good font

Of some obscure reason Microsoft has changed the default font in Word to Calibri. A sans serif, or grotesque as it rightly should be called.  I suggest you set the default back to Times New Roman. Open a new document, on the Format menu, click Font. Select the font, point size, and any attributes that you want, then click Default. Done. Phew.

One reason for this is that the equation editor uses a serif font. Another is that virtually all scientific papers in maths and physics are written using serif fonts (usually Computer Modern, and using LaTeX as the word processor – or rather typesetting processor ). A third reason (in my opinion) is that grotesques are just that, at least for the body of a text.

  • Me, myself and Irene (or I we, one)

Don’t be too personal. Use “as one can see” or “we could then” instead of “then I found” or “next I did”, at least if you expect the reader also to be able to see, derive or deduce what you have done. The reader should thus feel involved.

If something is way too complicated to show in your work, or something is not necessary to show but still is mentioned, then you could write “then it can be found” or “it has been found” or something similar – and then you need a reference to where an interested reader can confirm your claim.

Use “I” sparsely, for example when explaining something that is really personal, like why you choose to work with this particular thing. Like in “I don’t have English as my native tongue”. You may also use it when you do something that is your idea, and you don’t expect the reader too see it as in the “then we can see” cases. You might for example have observed something particular in some study of birds, and in your work you might then write something like “then, when observing the seagull it struck me that” or “at this point I realized”.

Use “You” in the cases you really mean that the reader should do or not do  something, like “to get the point I urge you to try this yourself”.

So, use “we” when you think the reader could do the steps or procedures too. Use “one” in more complicated cases.  Compare “then we could take the derivative of…” (you then include the reader) with “then one could take the derivative of…” (a bit more distance between the work and the reader) and “then I took the derivative” (the reader is just that, a reader).

In the “one” case one usually need a reference.

  • Passive form (passive voice)

Another more formal style is using passive form. Instead of “we can then show” or “one can then show”one could use “it can be shown”, and instead “this gives us” we can write just “this gives”.  This is called passive form, or passive voice, v.s. using I, me, us and one that is called active voice.

  • Passive or active voice?

It is quite often stated that scientific paper should be written using passive voice, but nowadays even scientific journals as Science and Nature encourage using active voice – simply because it will make the text more approachable for the reader.

Which form you  should use is much a question of personal taste, but still, avoid overusing “I” and “me”.

  • To whom it might concern

You should write the text with someone at your own academic level as the intended reader – I.e. someone who has studied the same level of maths or physics as you have.  This means that you need to explain terms and concepts that is outside the course, but not terms and concepts that are covered by the course.   If you, for example, will use quaternions (whatever they  may be) then you need to explain what quaternions are, but if you need to solve a quadratic equation, then you don’t need to show how to solve it (as you don’t need to show how to find that 17+42=59). You may thus write something like:

…we then get the equation 0=x2+x-6, that has the solutions  x=2  and x=−3 . Since we are only interested in the positive…

(It might be a good idea to solve at least one though, using algebra,  to show how it was done.)  If you do something more a bit more complicated, like solving an integral, then it is best to include the steps.

  • Avoid speed bumps

Say you in your text introduce something new like in “To be able to solve this we need to take the quilfilibristic phenomena in consideration”, then the reader would be like “whut?”:-). Instead one could write “To be able to solve this we need to take the so called quilfilibristic phenomena in consideration”, or adding “to be explained” or something of the same meaning.

Just to add something like the “so called” make the speed pump somewhat smother, but is even better to first explain what “quilfilibristic” means – and then use it.

In other words, the text should be smooooth.

  • Read the grading criteria!

Read the grading criteria, and check if you have done everting necessary to get a good grade, and avoided doing things that would give you a bad grade.  Do this at least three times, before you start to write, before you hand in your first draft and before you hand in the final work.

  • Let some other student read your work

See to that you get feedback not only from your teacher/supervisor. Exchange work with some other student and give feedback to each other. A student will read your work in a different way than a teacher, and may give you additional, valuable feedback.

Up a level : On writing an EE or IA in Maths, Physics, Bio, Chemistry or ESS
Next page : Elements of style. Writing an EE or IA in Maths, Physics, Bio, Chemistry or ESS, Part 2Last modified: Nov 13, 2022 @ 20:23