Wednesday, February 3, 2021

YES! You DO Actually Use What You Learn in School

 Guest Post by Jennifer Swanson

Today we are turning the blog over to award-winning nonfiction author Jennifer Swanson. Jennifer has written more than 40 nonfiction books, mostly about science and technology. She’s been a STEM girl since age 7, when she started a science club in her garage. She created the STEM Tuesday blog and  has a science podcast for kids, with her cohost Jed Doherty, called Solve It! for Kids 

Think back to the days when you were in elementary school, or even high school or college. How many of you remember sitting in class thinking, “Why do I have to know this? There is no way I’ll ever use this again?” Come on. I know that you have at least one class where you thought this.  I’ll be honest. I did. A lot! Particularly when I was in math, English, or yes, even some science classes. 

Believe it or not, those topics that we are sure we will never use again, we always do. Especially if you’re a writer. Well, that’s what’s happened to me. And I’m sure a bunch of you, too.

The thing is, as a writer you are always told to “write what you know”. That’s a great statement but it can carry more weight than you intend. We’d all like to think that that statement means that we get to write what we are passionate about. Sometimes that’s  the case. And sometimes we write what is offered to us so that we can get a paycheck and keep moving forward

As a new writer starting out, particularly in the nonfiction world the first thing you learn is that you say “YES” to a job that is offered to you. My first few writing jobs were with educational publishers. There you are competing against a bunch of other authors for a work-for-hire job. In order to stay at the top of the acquiring editor’s writer list, you needed to work quickly and diligently to keep getting assignments.

That means that if you get asked to write a book about Electrical Engineering, you say yes! Even if you didn’t do very well in that class in college, as my college roommate reminded me. When I emailed her that I was writing this book. Her exact words were, “Does your editor know you got a ‘D’ in that class?” Uh, no. I sort of left that part out. 

 The COOL thing about using things that you learned years ago is that now you have DISTANCE. Years later when you pick up this topic again, you may find it  much easier. Why? First of all, no tests! And also, you can learn the topic the way you want to, which is not always the way the teacher presents the material.

How did this book turn out? Well, the whole series was a Junior Library Guild Selection and got great reviews. Not bad, huh?

The funny thing is that researching this book actually changed the trajectory of my writing. I learned a lot about electrical engineering, of course, but I also learned that I loved writing about engineering and technology. This book is where I was first introduced to the self-driving car!! (The self-driving car is a big thing for me. If you know me, you know this to be true). 

Is this the only book where I’ve used stuff I learned in school? Nope. When Workman Publishing was looking to expand their Big Fat Notebook series to high schoolers, I got an email from the editor asking me if I wanted to write the chemistry book in that series. Now, this should be a no-brainer, right? I have a B.S. in Chemistry. Uh, yeah, that was 30 years ago. Did I ever think that I’d be writing a chemistry book all these years later. No.

 And yet, I had tons of fun doing it. The trick to using what you never thought you would is that you find out it’s actually kind of fun. Plus, now, you can explain things that you remember were difficult for you.

Take chemical bonds. Some kids have problems with these. But now, I get to take the time to explain it in a way that a kid would understand. (and I do, too, now)

 


And here’s where that math comes in. Yep! I got to use fractions, units and conversions, all in dimensional analysis. 

 

So why am I talking about all of this? To let you know that if you’re a writer, you may be asked to write about anything. This is true of both nonfiction and fiction authors.

The point is, don’t say no. You can do it! 

Besides, saying yes to one book, you just might be inspired to write a different one. One that is your own idea. As you can see, my obsession  passion for self-driving cars led me to write this one Without doing the Electrical Engineering book, I may never have written Save the Crash-test Dummies (Peachtree Publishing)

 If you take a look at most of the books I’ve written, you’ll see that I tend to use a lot of what I learned in school. Yes, there is a lot of science, but also history, technology, math, social studies, and don’t forget the after-school sports!

Here is my challenge to you, think about something you thought you’d never use again. Then look around. Have you used it? And if not, then I challenge you to do so. It may open a whole new world of ideas and opportunities for you. 

 Jennifer's books have received starred reviews and other accolades, including Booklist Best Tech books, Green Earth Book Honor award, a Florida Book award, multiple California Reading association awards, and National Science Teaching Best STEM awards. An accomplished and exciting speaker, Jennifer has presented at National NSTA conferences, Highlights Foundation workshops, the World Science Festival in NYC, and the Library of Congress National Book Festival. Visit her website at http://www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com

27 comments:

  1. You can do it! Yes, we can, Jen. Love your energy and your books. I've learned much from reading many of your books. Science is fun!

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  2. Great post! Loved the part about the grades in college — and that they have nothing to do with whether you can write on that subject!

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    1. Exactly! You can write whatever topic you want. All you have to do is know how to research it.

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  3. Jen is several kinds of awesome and so very inspiring!

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  4. A Huge Thanks to Jen for sharing her wisdom with us today!

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  5. I am up to the challenge, Jen! I’m thinking about a required course I once thought, “I’ll never need this knowledge!”

    STEM and STEAM stories are needed to support the classroom curriculum.

    Suzy Leopold

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  6. I love research and writing creative nonfiction! I'm up to the challenge so bring on the offbeat topics...;)

    Great article!

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  7. Science is my favorite! What fun you must have! I am up for the challenge!

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    1. I really do have fun. This is the best job in the world. Go get 'em KMc!

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  8. Spent the last 20 years teaching science and math to highly gifted kiddos. Love it!

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  9. "The point is, don’t say no. You can do it!" Awesome post, Jen. Thank you for the positivity to stay the course on my creative path.

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    1. You're so welcome. Thanks for your kind words. This business isn't easy, some days you laugh or cry. I try to pick laughing most of the time. Good luck!

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  10. Such a funny story! As a former engineer, I, too, now enjoy learning things the way I want to learn them. And I see this in my son. So, so true. And I gotta say that I LOVE the new world of nonfiction for kids. Great post!

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  11. Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences. I always thought I would be a short story writer or children's book author when I "grow up", now I am writing and enjoying non fiction feature articles for magazines and local papers. Please share how we can access the bigger and better assignments.

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  12. Love this post, Jen! Congrats on all your books. Writing takes us into all sorts of topics!

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  13. You are an inspiration to me Jen. And what a psychological lift--I don't have to worry about some of the less than desirable college grades now too!!

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