Teach.com

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Writing in a STEM Classroom

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Yesterday my students took final exams in two Project Lead the Way classes:  Introduction to Engineering Design (IED) and Digital Electronics (DE).  Their exams consisted of a writing prompt with the requirement that they write at least one page, they use introductory and concluding paragraphs, and that they use proper spelling and grammar.

For the IED exam they were told to underline the steps in the 12-step design process, underline key terms in the process of Reverse Engineering, and underline the words Planned Obsolescence and Perceived Obsolescence when they were used.

I could have easily had them do a multiple choice test on processes in CAD programming, steps in the design process, and the difference between Planned and Perceived Obsolescence.  But what would that have told be about their real understanding of these terms?

Too often, as STEM teachers, we get to hide behind solving problems and we let the writing and reading part of education be allocated to the English teachers.  We forget that we have college degrees and we had to write papers and we had to read A LOT in college.  Our students need writing and reading preparation so they can go to the best science and engineering schools and do well.

(Insert Sea Story here: )  I remember being a Main Propulsion Assistant, in the Navy, and having the Chief Engineer always (not once or twice but always) ask me what the tech manual said about the problem we were having with the pumps, turbines, or other mechanical equipment in our engine room. I would have to bring the tech manual and I was expected to have read the manual, understood what was being said, and be able to explain it in layman's terms to the Captain. This was true even though I wasn't the person doing the repairs.  It was my people doing the repairs and I was expected to understand the problems.  If I weren't a good reader I would have never made it in that job.

And so, whenever possible, I intend to be a better teacher by having my students read and write.  Not having them write in every class is a disservice to their future.  The English teachers can work on making sure they understand the nuances of style or various grammar rules.   We can be the ones who make sure they are practicing their skills.

(Insert first year teacher story from 1994 here: )  At a faculty meeting during my first year of teaching we were discussing having students write more across all of their courses.  The curriculum person stood in front of us and told us "of course, if you aren't an English teacher you can't grade them on grammar and spelling."  My hand went up faster than a SM-2ER missile.  "If some kid gives me a paper that is written poorly it is going to be marked up like a bloody mess!"  (That was before we became a gentler profession and we got rid of red pens for grading.)

We are professionals.  We have accumulated, in most cases, multiple hours of classes that required us to write and to be graded on our writing.  Yes, some teachers are NOT great writers but that doesn't mean they can't demand good writing from their students.  Make your students write.  You owe it to them.