Adie Phillips teaching

Integrating Writing from the Ground Up

The Environmental Engineering faculty at MSU are just completing their first academic year as an official degree program within the Civil Engineering department. Innovative, forward-thinking faculty within the program, like Drs. Ellen Lauchnor and Adie Phillips, both Assistant Professors, are piloting curricula to meet the needs of industry and satisfy the standards of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

The Writing Center has been fortunate to be a part of this unique opportunity to incorporate writing assignments in two courses in the new Environmental Engineering curriculum: Dr. Lauchnor’s Fall 2019 EENV 341: Physical and Chemical Treatment Processes and EENV 387: Environmental Laws and Regulations, taught by Dr. Phillips in Spring 2020.

Students in both classes participated in tutor-facilitated writing studios. Studios are comprised of small groups of students who help each other draft, revise, and polish their work. Writing Center tutors guide students through their writing processes, from idea generation and experimental design, through research, drafting, peer revision, and proofreading. While students began the spring semester meeting face-to-face, when that was no longer an option due to the outbreak of Covid-19, they were still able to provide feedback and support to one another online in asynchronous studios.

We are extraordinarily grateful to be on this program-development journey with Drs. Lauchnor and Phillips. We asked them to reflect on their experience working with the Writing Center to integrate writing into EENV 341 and EENV 387.

Writing Center: What motivated you to integrate writing into your STEM course?

Ellen Lauchnor: We have a new degree (Environmental Engineering) in which we are hoping to find innovative ways to teach students non-engineering skills, including writing. This was an excellent opportunity to try a new approach instead of simply requiring more WRIT courses.

Adie Phillips: Environmental engineers need to be able to communicate well for a wide variety of audiences. I wanted to help our students know the value of clear communication and writing in their future careers.

WC: Describe the writing assignment/experience you designed for your class.

EL: My assignment was centered around water quality testing and designing a water treatment system. The students had to write a report summarizing their water quality testing of a local waterway and their ideas for designing a treatment process for that water.

AP: With the help of the Writing Center, I re-imagined the homework and term project for the class. In the first homework, we practiced writing a well-designed résumé and cover letter to emphasize communication with potential employers. In the second homework, we prepared a concise summary of an environmental regulation to an audience such as a client at a manufacturing facility. In the re-designed term project, the students were charged with developing a summary of a climate change adaptation project that required communication with a city council and the public, with the goal of preparing written or oral communications that would convince the public of the need for the project. The theme of the assignments was to tailor writing styles for the various audiences while practicing the technical writing values of the ABCS (accuracy, brevity, clarity, and simplicity).

WC: Why did you decide on that particular writing experience?

EL: It was closely related to the type of writing our students may have to do in the professional world. It was also closely tied into the technical content that they were learning in the class and was similarly formatted to the type of report that they will have to write for their senior capstone project.

AP: My partner in this project, Dr. Ellen Lauchnor, was emphasizing technical communication to technical audiences, so my projects were focused on communication to less technical audiences.

WC: What have you learned about integrating writing into your curriculum from this experience?

EL: I have learned much about the resources offered by the Writing Center and about strategies to make the assignments and students' efforts more fruitful and meaningful. It has certainly given me many ideas about how to use writing assignments to teach students peer reviewing skills, how to review their own work, and how to write for a specific audience. It has shown me that incorporating writing isn't easy and that there is still a lot of effort involved with evaluating and helping students to understand the importance of writing in their field.

AP: I think the biggest lesson I learned is that "less is more." More frequent feedback (and input from their peers) on fewer assignments has improved the writing and feedback process.

WC: What will you keep and what will you revise for the next iteration of your class?

EL: I will keep a similar assignment for my class next year, incorporating a written technical report into their project. Instead of the studios, I will have the students spend a couple of days in class practicing peer review. In all of my classes moving forward, I will incorporate some of the approaches we discussed, such as assigning partial drafts due early in the semester and having peer review exercises. I would like to somehow encourage the students to form writing groups outside of class for their assignments and have been pushing my graduate students to do this for their thesis writing. I will have writing assignments in all of my courses moving forward.

AP: This semester was going so well before the pandemic transitioned us online. I am hoping it continues to be so collaborative online. Before the shift, the students were really taking part in the studios and in-class workshop/peer reviews. So, yes. I am planning to keep my changed assignments and structure for the next spring course.

WC: What else should faculty know about your experience?

EL: All STEM courses should incorporate writing. It's an incredibly important skill for every profession, and students should get practice in all of their courses! I think the most important thing that I learned is that writing is a process and students won't put in the time they need to polish the work if you have just a single due date. Assigning draft submissions is the single modification that has greatly improved the quality of all the reports I've read from my classes this year. We don't need to be writing teachers and can incorporate very simple modifications to our assignments to teach concepts like reviewing and revision that are important for students to practice and carry forward into their professional lives.

AP: I felt so supported and cheered on with my changes to my course by the MSU Writing Center. I now feel like I am part of the campus writing community. I learned a lot from our workshops and lunch meetings. I learned so much from Writing Center staff and also from our workshop peers who were re-designing assignments. I encourage all faculty to write the proposal and join the WAMSU team. As we discussed in our lunch meetings, I think we should develop a technical writing certificate for our students to carry with them into their futures. Thank you, MSU Writing Center!!