How to integrate STEM into writing courses

Our students are already there!

I’ve been teaching writing as a part-time adjunct at a community college for about eight years. I came to the post after a 20-year career in high technology—mostly in software businesses, particularly Internet start-up companies during the great expansion in the 1990s. I also did a brief stint as an editor in a British publishing company focusing on medical and scientific textbooks.

I had taught tech writing on and off as I got my master’s in business management; communication skills were key in advancing my career. I suppose I’m a testament to the value of a blended education in humanities and professional development, and I was lucky enough to enter a market that urgently needed communication skills to win customers and grow revenues.

As I work with my students and read various case studies about transformative writing pedagogy, it’s quite clear that we need to evolve how we teach writing at the community college level—to accommodate academic goals, the middle-skills employment landscape and the digital ecology. We need a new approach because, as a country, as a people, as a world community, we have entered a different era! With the wide adoption of digital information and convenient computational power to analyze, manipulate, and synthesize this information, our students have a profoundly different relationship with information and its uses.

Digital natives—students born after 1990 or as Gardner and Davis describe as The App Generation—are a growing presence and social force. Technology is driving change in virtually all professions—many of our students are more facile with information management tools than we are—and those who commit to learn tools have an almost magical ability to acquire the skills they need (because they have been living in a digital ecology since childhood). Sure, some students are challenged, but most understand the urgency of developing computer skills and studying math and science in today’s economy. It’s not either/or for them!

These changes have introduced many hard issues for our society and our profession. I’m aware of the terrible discrepancies in income, secondary education priorities, cultural diversity, ethical concerns, and lost perspectives that are at stake. That said, my job is to teach students how to write—I hope well enough for a student to get, keep and advance in a job. As someone who has managed people in high-tech companies and who has experience with technology adoption, I plan to use my blog entries to:

  • Explore the intersection of technology and writing pedagogy—how we can use technology to help students become better writers
  • Identify writing models that integrate technical, scientific, and quantitative subjects into our writing assignments (not in lieu of literature, but as a way to augment literature)
  • Highlight visual fluency alongside writing skills—especially, integrating graphical and tabular information
  • Describe successful activities and assignments that focus on critical thinking skills.

I hope readers will contribute their thoughts and best practices in these areas.

A final note: I’m not suggesting that we train our students to be technical writers (though as a vocation, it’s rewarding and fulfilling). I’m suggesting that we explore more types of writing and more efficient approaches to synthesizing writing that reflect commonplace scenarios around us. As Steve Jobs and many other business luminaries have noted, technology is not enough. Writing is a critical skill that businesses need—not just to instruct and inform their customers, but to inspire them.