Biological Sciences 300, Smith College | Neurophysiology

Collaborative Writing Project

UPDATED: February 20, 2020

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The Project

Our goal is to collectively create a high-quality illustrated synopsis of our course by presenting and explaining the major figures we worked with in class. Each figure should be accompanied by a substantial caption that summarizes the details of the figure as well as its broader context. Although textbook readings may help you clarify concepts, the chapters should focus on our class work, not the textbook. The best version(s) of each chapter will be made available to the entire class.


Writing teams will consist of four (or in some cases three) students. Teams will be permanent for the semester, although a member can be expelled from a team with a diminished grade if the other members agree that she has not been pulling her weight. Team members will rotate through the following roles, moving down the list with each new chapter. The team roles are:

  • Organizer of the chapter, creating headlines for the major sections and capturing and uploading the illustrations.
  • Caption Writer 1, writing detailed captions for the first half of the figures.
  • Caption Writer 2, writing detailed captions for the second half of the figures.
  • Editor, writing a brief synopsis at the end of the chapter summarizing the main points; making final revisions for accuracy, clarity and style; checking spelling, punctuation, and layout; and notifying the instructor when the chapter is ready for review. [For teams with only three members, one person will serve as both Organizer and Editor.]

Although these roles do not involve equal amounts of work, rotating through the roles will guarantee that all team members contribute approximately equally over the span of the semester. Teams are always encouraged to make decisions collaboratively, regardless of each member's assigned role for that chapter.


Students who wish to form a writing team of four may do so by having one member send an email to by Wednesday evening, January 29, 2020. Please use this gmail address, not my Smith email, for this purpose, but use my Smith email ( for all other communications that you would like me to see promptly. Your message should contain the full names of the four students on your team. Other students will be placed on teams automatically.


We will use Google Drive, which includes Google Docs, an online authoring environment that is already attached to Smith and Five College email accounts. It allows multiple authors to work on the same document. You access it by clicking the square array of 9 gray dots ("the apps") at the top right of your email's navigation bar, and then clicking "Drive" to bring up the directory in which your documents will appear.

I will create a team folder for each team, shared by members of the team and me. Any document placed in that folder automatically is shared with the entire team. To access your documents, click the link on the left for items "Shared with me." Your team folder should be there. The first time you visit, it will contain a mostly blank document, "Chapter 1," which contains a title, a subheading, a figure, and a caption to demonstrate the format you should use. For each new chapter, that chapter's Organizer will create a new blank document within your team's shared folder, using the NEW button at the top left of the Drive page, and then selecting "Google Docs" from the drop-down menu.


PDF files of PowerPoint slides from our classes will be available on our course's Moodle site. The Organizer of a chapter should download the Moodle file to her own computer, open it with Adobe Reader (or Preview on the Mac), and select the most important images to include in the chapter. As a guideline, select about half to two-thirds of the images, omitting the ones that are secondary elaborations of the principal figures. Figures on class handouts can help you decide which slides are important.

To capture an individual image, zoom in until the image fills the screen. (If you do not enlarge images, they will appear blurry and pixelated in your chapter.) Take a screenshot of the enlarged image to save in a folder for insertion in your Google document. To upload an image, place the cursor on a new blank line in the document where the figure will be inserted. The "insert image" choice in the Insert menu will open a dialog box that lets you drag an image onto the page or browse on your computer to select an illustration to insert at that position.

On rare occasions, you may wish to bring in additional figures from other sources to further illustrate your chapter, but do so only if they are essential, scientifically accurate, and visually informative. Avoid illustrations that are merely decorative. In the caption, please identify the source of any new figures (give the complete URL if you found it online).

Illustrations can be reduced in size by dragging a corner. After clicking on an illustration (which will highlight its corners), it should say "In line with text" in gray type. If it does not, click the "in line" link to change the format. This will keep the illustration in its proper place in the chapter if you later insert new material before or after the figure.

After the figures are in place, the two Caption Writers should create detailed captions explaining what each figure shows. It can be helpful to discuss captions with your teammates to be sure they are accurate.


Google documents use a formatting bar that is similar to ones you are familiar with in Word and other editing software. Since chapters by different teams may eventually be combined into a uniform set of course notes, please use Google's default formatting as follows:

Chapter titles: Heading 1 (Arial 18 point)
Major subtopics: Heading 2 (Arial 14 point)
Illustrations and captions: Insert illustrations on blank lines, centered. Place a left-justified caption (Arial 10 point) under the figure.
Synopsis Text: Normal text (Arial 11 point). Do not ident new paragraphs, but skip a line between them.
Authors and roles: Chapters should end with the full names of each team member, and each person's role for that chapter.

Titles &
Due Dates

The titles and 2020 dates when chapters are due are listed here. They are also marked on the main syllabus.

Chapter 1, Electrical Signals in Neurons. DUE: Feb 6
Chapter 2, Membrane Potentials and Voltage-Clamping. DUE: Feb 18
Chapter 3, Propagation of the Action Potential. DUE: Feb 20
Chapter 4, Other Channels & Molecular Structure. DUE: Feb 27
Chapter 5, Synapses: Neuromuscular Junction. DUE: Mar 26
Chapter 6, Synapses: Neuron-to-Neuron & Metabotropic. DUE:Apr 2
Chapter 7, Generating Movement. DUE: Apr 9
Chapter 8, Eye and Retina. DUE: Apr 16
Chapter 9, Primary Visual Cortex. DUE: Apr 28


Advice is available (as a PDF file) on how teams can self-manage their work and assure that all members contribute appropriately to the group's effort.


Self-assessments of each team member's contributions in mid-semester will help teams adjust their working styles. A second self-assessment at the end of the semester will allow individual course grades to reflect the actual contributions made by each person to the team's overall work.