WAES program will help future UIUC STEM graduates to communicate their science

Jamie Hendrickson for Illinois Physics
10/6/2020

Illinois Crop Sciences Research Professor Julie Zilles
Illinois Crop Sciences Research Professor Julie Zilles
Illinois Physics Professor S. Lance Cooper
Illinois Physics Professor S. Lance Cooper
Illinois Physics Director of External Affairs and Special Projects Celia Elliott
Illinois Physics Director of External Affairs and Special Projects Celia Elliott

The University of Illinois Writing Across Engineering & Science (WAES) program has been awarded $599,999 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the research project Advancing Adaptation of Writing Pedagogies for Undergraduate STEM Education Through Transdisciplinary Action Research. This research program, which ultimately aims to incorporate effective technical writing as a core skill taught in STEM courses across the university, is funded through NSF’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Program: Education and Human Resources.

Crop Sciences Research Assistant Professor Julie Zilles is the principal investigator on the grant.

“In the same way that writing is an intrinsic part of my day-to-day experiences working as a scientist,” Zilles comments, “we’d like to see writing intentionally embedded throughout our students’ experiences—both inside and outside the classroom, building skills throughout their education. They need to hear scientists and engineers talking about the professional importance of writing and about what people in their discipline value in written communication.”

The three-year study began on October 1, 2020, and is focusing on how to adapt, develop, and implement the most effective pedagogies for teaching the varied types of writing genres and conventions that STEM students of diverse disciplines will require in their future professions, which are not widely found nationwide in undergraduate STEM curricula.

Illinois Physics’ Director of External Affairs and Special Projects Celia Elliott teaches technical writing to undergraduates and graduates in the Illinois Physics degree programs. She notes, “It’s important to inculcate the idea that to be a successful scientist, you must be a good writer. The same aptitudes that make a person a good physicist are exactly the same aptitudes needed to become a good technical writer—logic, precision, specificity, pattern recognition, and the ability to sort out the signal from the noise.”

To help students gain effective writing skills, the project will support STEM faculty as they adapt evidence-based writing pedagogies for STEM classes and curricula.

“The importance of writing as a core skill is not commonly emphasized in science and engineering curricula,” Illinois Physics Associate Head for Graduate Programs and Professor Lance Cooper adds, “in spite of the fact that scientists and engineers in diverse career paths must write not only frequently, but also clearly, logically, and persuasively, to be successful in their academic, industrial, or governmental jobs. An important goal of this interdisciplinary project is to employ the best practices from writing-studies experts on campus to introduce writing as an essential core skill throughout the curricula of engineering and science departments."

The project’s long-term goals include building and fostering a community of STEM faculty members who develop and incorporate new pedagogies, and advancing understanding of how to promote pedagogical change in general.

In addition, the program coordinators will continually investigate the program’s overall effectiveness in promoting the adoption and adaptation of writing pedagogies by STEM faculty and, in turn, their students’ levels of engagement in writing. In this way, the team’s research results will continuously be applied toward the development and improvement of the program and can provide a model that could be applied to STEM curricula across the nation.

“The Writing Across Engineering and Science (WAES) program was developed and offered for Illinois STEM faculty with financial support from the Grainger College of Engineering’s Strategic Instructional Innovations Program. This new NSF award will allow us to rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of the WAES program in promoting the use of new writing pedagogies and to continue improving it. We’ll also be looking at the impacts of those pedagogical changes on students’ experiences with writing,” Zilles adds.

Like the transdisciplinary design of the project, the WAES team itself is interdisciplinary, to better address the large and complicated scope of the project. In addition to Zilles, Cooper, and Elliott, the team includes Illinois Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Head and Director of Undergraduate Studies and Professor John Popovics, Illinois English Professor John Gallagher, and Illinois English Professor and Director of the Center for Writing Studies Paul Prior. Illinois BioEngineering Teaching Associate Jennifer Amos will serve as the project’s external evaluator. Past and current Illinois graduate students who have contributed to this work are John Yoritomo and Patrick Coleman from Physics, Gail Scott from Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Nicole Turnipseed, Ryan Ware, Bruce Kovanen, and Megan Mericle from the Center for Writing Studies.

This project began in 2016 and has been supported by the Grainger College of Engineering’s Strategic Instructional Innovations Program, administered by the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education. Additional support was provided by the participating departments and the Center for Writing Studies.

This combination of several different research and skill specialties allows the program’s team to advance the adaptation of writing pedagogies in STEM undergraduate education—all starting at Illinois.

Recent News

  • Events
  • Outreach

Now, Vishveshwara and her colleagues at ICASU and Illinois Physics are putting on a virtual arts and sciences festival entitled The Illuminated Universe, featuring the work of scientists and artists. The multidisciplinary event taking place April 23 through 25, is free and open to the public, but space is limited and registration is required.

The presentations will span multiple themes, starting with “Cosmic Flights” on Friday night at 6:00 P.M. The second session’s theme, “When Art and Science Collide,” kicks off Saturday at 11 A.M. Then Saturday afternoon, the theme “Quantum Enchantment” will start at 2:00 P.M. The festival’s final theme, “Art of Life” starts Sunday at 12 P.M. (all times are in Central Daylight Time CDT). Each session will run about one-and-a-half to two hours long.

  • Research
  • COVID-19

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have developed a new mathematical model for predicting how COVID-19 spreads. This model not only accounts for individuals’ varying biological susceptibility to infection but also their levels of social activity, which naturally change over time. Using their model, the team showed that a temporary state of collective immunity—what they coined “transient collective immunity”—emerged during early, fast-paced stages of the epidemic. However, subsequent “waves,” or surges in the number of cases, continued to appear because of changing social behaviors. Their results are published in the April 8, 2021 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  • Education

Connections with other physics teachers are a big part of Marianna’s story. A lover of physics from her high school days and a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Physics, she got little nudges and encouragements from former teachers early in her career. Relationships with those mentors and colleagues led her to engage first with local organizations for physics teachers then with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). Her work still incorporates some of the ideas she picked up during professional meetings, conferences, and workshops. These were and are a big influence on how each piece of her teaching strategy is intentionally constructed.