You know those science textbooks in school and college classrooms all over the country? And the signs and other educational materials at places like zoos, museums, and aquariums? People write those. Like, for their JOBS. Somehow, this never occurred to me – nor, apparently, did it occur to the career counselors at my liberal arts school — when I was first contemplating how to combine my loves of science, writing and teaching into a productive and useful career.
But one day, shortly after I moved to Boston to attend the BU science journalism program, I had lunch with a college friend who worked in this nebulous field called “educational publishing.”
“I heard that McDougal Littell is starting a new middle school science program and they’re looking for science editors,” she said. I was all ears. And all questions. What was educational publishing? Who was McDougal Littell? What do science editors in educational publishing do? Could I be one?
Turns out I could be a science editor in educational publishing, the industry behind the textbooks, digital media, and other materials used in educational settings, from preschool to college classrooms. Shortly after that conversation, I interviewed and landed one of the open positions, and spent the next two years on a team putting together a new middle school science series.
It’s a market that seems to fly under the radar for many science writers, but corporate entities like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as well as many non-profits, media outlets, museums, and research institutions all publish educational materials for teachers to use in classrooms or for their own professional development. These materials span from traditional textbooks to interactive mobile apps to tutorials that teach teachers about new developments in science. And all of those materials come from writers who can both explain science and present it in a way that’s effective for classroom use. But this kind of writing isn’t something generally covered in a science journalism program. So how do writers break into this field?
I don’t mean go out and get a professional teaching license (though having classroom experience definitely can help, and there are graduate programs in education that specialize in curriculum design). But nothing prepares you to write for teachers more than spending some time in their shoes.
Alison Fromme (bio) taught high school biology, and, in perhaps the sweetest teaching gig around, developed and led teacher professional development tours to the Carribbean. “All of these experiences made me acutely aware of students’ basic understanding of science and also the challenges that science teachers face,” she says.
Sarah Webb (bio), who worked on the exhibits at the Griffith Observatory, credits her earlier experience teaching at the WonderLab, where she did science demonstrations for kids. “it’s really critical for putting your brain in that sort of educational space, and seeing how visitors of all ages interacted with hands-on exhibits was critical for helping me think about my audience in many ways.”
And before jumping into science writing, I taught informal science education at the New England Aquarium and Camp Seymour, an outdoor education center on the Puget Sound. I also had teaching experience under my belt as a teaching assistant during my biology grad school days. That experience in the trenches combined with my writing experience and science background, is exactly what my editors at educational outlets including the New York Times Learning Network, WGBH, and McDougal Littell (now a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) were looking for.
Follow science education news.
Ever hear people throw around the acronyms NGSS, STEM, STEAM, NSTA, NCSE, or ELL? NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association, is a great resource for staying on top of what’s new in science education – such as the introduction of the NGSS, or National Science Education Standards. These standards, developed in partnership with the National Research Council, are a set of skills and learning goals for k-12 students across the U.S. Many, if not most, outlets that publish educational materials want to ensure that their products align with these standards.
Understand what educational materials look like
That should be a no-brainer, but I was often surprised by the freelance submissions we’d get at McDougal Littell from people who just didn’t know how to structure a lesson or activity so a teacher can use it efficiently. I think people sometimes assume that because the language level of a middle-school textbook is quite a bit lower than that of, say, Smithsonian, it must be easy to write for this market. It’s an assumption people tend to make about writing for kids as well. Anyone can do it, right? Well, to some extent, sure, but if you want to do this kind of writing, you need to know what it looks like. This means also thinking like a teacher. In addition to “delivering content,” or “transferring information” — edu-jargon for, well, teaching — teachers think of ways to assess students, or determine what they actually learned. On top of that, they also need to manage classrooms full of kids – holding their attention, transitioning from one activity to the next, and making sure no one sets their desk on fire (which one of my undergrad students did…).
Network, network, network.
As in any other kind of writing or gig-hunting, it pays to get your name out there and to meet people in the field. I landed my first job, at McDougal Littell, by requesting an informational interview with the managing editor of the project my college friend told me about.
And as Alison points out, “There’s no harm in calling up an educational publisher, and asking who’s hiring for contract work in your area — usually it’s a matter of saying you’re available and showing off your experience in both realms.” Gigs sometimes pop up on the NASW jobs list as well. It never hurts to reply to those positions if educational writing is something that piques your interest. Alison and I both have found that, even in cases where we didn’t get the jobs advertised, those publishers might come calling for projects in the future.
Image Credit: Sarah Webb