A. Introduction: Opening Thoughts on Writing in the Discipline in Electronics Engineering Technology
First, let me say that I’m sold (or is it bought?) on the idea of Writing-in-the-Discipline (WID). My experience with the Dawson WID group and reading through Bean’s “Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom,” have helped to convince me of the importance, and dare I say, necessity of including writing within all our classes, i.e. across the curriculum. Writing is one of the fundamental ways humans sort through their ideas and engage in critical thinking. And the need for writing grows ever more obvious. Coming from a technology-based background (Electrical Engineering), I am conscious of the need to continually improve writing and critical-thinking skills. In particular, once you begin working in industry, all companies will require the writing of reports, proposals, memos, etc. However, herein lies the challenge: as a teacher in a technology/career program, how do I incorporate more writing into a program that leans more towards practical, hands-on work as opposed to academic writing? Now, before I delve into that question directly, allow me to outline what I perceive as the characteristics of the Electronics Engineering Technology (Electrotech) program that pose the largest hurdles to incorporating more writing and critical thinking. I need to add a little caveat here. You will need to read the following with the mindset of someone who has been teaching in a traditional career program and sees these points as hurdles as well. I know that those who have been using writing in conjunction with critical thinking already will immediately see only opportunities. I will just say, “Hold your horses, and allow me to go through my process.”
The first hurdle is student workload. Almost all Electrotech courses —in fact most engineering and science-based career program courses—have a lab component. What this means is that our students not only have the work required for the lectures, such as assignments, reports, and exams, but often preparatory work (in the form of pre-lab calculations, theoretical analysis, simulations and/or some design calculations), the lab work itself and a formal lab report write up, which often includes analysis of data and other calculations. This translates to a career/technical student often spending more hours in class than his pre-U counterpart, and often having more “homework”. Hurdle number two is that traditional lab reports do little to develop writing and critical-thinking skills. I have substituted for an instructor in a third year, sixth semester lab, and the conclusions I received from students were no better than conclusions I have received from first year, first semester students: eg. “The lab worked and there were no issues obtaining our results.” The only difference is that the conclusions show some development of the students’ wordsmithing skills. The conclusions are longer and wordier, but they say nothing of real substance – just like their shorter, first year versions. Now, you would think that the conclusion and discussion of results or data would be a prime place for some critical-thinking to happen – but alas it does not. So clearly, something is not working. I am not suggesting that our students do not have ample opportunity to learn to write and apply critical-thinking. In the first year alone, students may write as many as sixty lab reports, and that is on top of any writing they may do in their English, Humanities, Phys Ed, etc…, courses. The problem as I see it is that we’re not getting the depth of thinking out of them that we could. The third hurdle, and probably the most difficult to jump over, is old-school mentalities. I know this is a loaded statement, and it could mean many things to many people, but what I am referring to here is the general mentality that “this is how we’ve always done it, and it has served us well enough, so why change it.”
What I want is to give the students a deeper, more profound learning experience. I feel students just might possibly learn more than what is stated in the experiment objectives. As of yet, this message is not getting across to the students. I base this assessment upon simply reading their lab reports. They clearly show that they see the learning experience of a lab experiment and the subsequent report as nothing more than just answering the objectives of the experiment. The final hurdle I wish to mention is my desire to not add more work to my already overbooked schedule. All teachers are overworked. We are constantly looking for time-saving tools and methods, particularly when it comes to corrections. We want to give our students good and timely feedback, while grading their work fairly. So, at first glance, the idea of adding more writing assignments or activities into the Electrotech program simply equates to more correcting for the teacher. Even if I believe that writing and critical thinking are important skills, they do not supersede the competencies that already exist within the Electrotech program. Now, if only there was a way to incorporate more writing into our already existing learning activities, incorporating WAC/WID principles, making the existing activities more relevant, and not increasing our correcting workload. Hmmmm… Certainly others could come up with any number of other hurdles. However, the four hurdles I mention above are, I believe, the most prominent ones. These then are the hurdles I want to tackle and, ultimately, move beyond, thus answering my original question, “how do I incorporate writing more effectively into a program that leans toward practical, hands-on learning?”
My Dawson WID Experience Throughout my experience with the Dawson WID group, I often felt out-of-place, because I am not a traditional academic, nor am I really a writer (maybe that was another hurdle I should have mentioned!). Yet, one effect of being “out of place” was being exposed to a lot of new ideas. Almost anything anyone else mentioned about writing in the discipline or across the curriculum, be it based on something out of Bean’s book or just from their experiences, was a trigger for some new idea or reflection on my part. In short, the work group environment was a great incubator. Over the semester, I went from not knowing how I could possibly add more writing into our Electrotech courses, to seeing how the writing our students already do could be tweaked and made more relevant and effective as a learning activity. What follows in the portfolio are some partially random thoughts, including documents where available, outlining various aspects of writing in the discipline. At first, when I began thinking about incorporating these WAC/WID concepts into our Electrotech courses, I had two particular first year courses in mind; Direct Current Circuits in the first semester, Alternating Current Circuits in the second semester. However, after further reflection, and one year later, I have come to realize that most of the suggestions I will make could be applied to and implement in pretty much any of our Electrotech courses.
B. Ideas for Informal Exploratory Writing in Electrotech
C. Formal Writing Assignments
D. Evaluation and Assessment