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

Jamie Hendrickson for Illinois Physics

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.

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