"Don’t Just Data Dump!” Integrating Technical Writing into Engineering Statistics
Through the Integrating Writing into STEM grant program, Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering Dr. Bernadette McCrory partnered with Writing Center staff to rethink a semester-long technical report in her Engineering Probability and Statistics (EIND 354) course in the Fall of 2019.
The project required students working in groups to think critically about a wide range of data sets found in everyday contexts such as trends in ages of women having first live births, immunization rates around the world, or how keywords in job titles relate to salary. Students had to communicate their interpretations in their own language rather than simply repeating statistical terminology. In writing, they had to explain, evaluate, and apply statistical analysis in order to draw conclusions.
With almost 50 students in the course, Dr. McCrory recognized the need to build in support for the writing process for her students. Early in the semester, Writing Center staff delivered a presentation detailing the realities of the writing processes of engineers. Then tutors joined the students on three different project work days to assist in planning, incorporating instructor feedback, developing and arranging ideas, integrating and citing research, revising, and proofreading group papers.
Many groups returned to the Writing Center throughout the semester to polish their reports, often booking the same tutors they had worked with in class.
We enjoyed learning with Dr. McCrory and her students about data and technical writing. Below, she reflects on her experiences.
Writing Center: What motivated you to integrate writing into your STEM course?
Bernadette McCrory: Personal experience and personal struggle. Engineers aren't typically thought of as "writers" but for me—being public health, healthcare, and engineering—I have found an intense need for competent technical writers. It is crucial to convey appropriate meaning, particularly during times of upheaval. If we look at COVID-2019/SARS-COV-2, we see risk communication everywhere—good and bad, fact- and opinion-based. How can one interpret this? Technical writing, for me, is the saving grace in this pandemic—sharing unbiased facts of risk to empower individuals.
WC: Describe the writing assignment/experience you designed for your class.
BM: Took a second iteration term project and made it more bounded for better conception by my students. Integrated TAs/Graders/Writing Center Staff to help create a "writer's focus and identity."
WC: Why did you decide on that particular writing experience?
BM: Introductory Statistics is often boring—too many proofs. For engineers, we want everything to be applied to garner a new skill set. So, taking a raw public data set and making it their own seemed like a great new adventure to teach basic statistics. How better to show application than to struggle with minimal stats tools and minimal writing and research skills to produce a truly good analyses on a topic! These students rock! It's not easy. Also, my students submitted 9 NCUR proposals from this course!
WC: Describe the support your students received through the Writing Center.
BM: YAY! OF COURSE! I couldn't do it without you all. Time is crucial and I don't have enough to meet individually with 50 students every week in this course. I could not do this without peer tutor support.
WC: What have you learned about integrating writing into your curriculum from this experience?
BM: It's hard. Time consuming. Painful. Joyous! Doesn't stick. Need more practice for the students. Drinking the "Kool Aide" takes more than one class or one semester. Encouraging. My pain and suffering are leading to their learning and growth, leading to better outcomes in capstone, thus leading to better power skills on the job market. It's worth it.
WC: What will you keep and what will you revise for the next iteration of your class?
BM: I will attempt to keep everything. We were very thoughtful on integration. My hope is to continue to use peer Writing Center tutors—but also to integrate my own graduate students. I see this as my sustainable option for integration of peer support.
WC: What else should faculty know about your experience?
BM: I learned a lot. I thought I had a good grasp in [writing instruction]—I did not. It helped me 'reflect' on what I intended versus what I communicated. I also had the fortune of a grad student working on her research having been through the experience with me, so she could provide both a student- and research perspective without judgement/bias. I value this immensely as we are still working together, and this project has grown into her thesis! As a program, we have really started discussing what we want for technical writing and how to improve. We have hard conversations about the skills we want our engineers leaving with. We have published! We are working towards a larger grant proposal. I also learned that while I want everything to serve a purpose and be "quantitative,” it’s okay if it's not—it leads to experience and enables experiential learning.