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Engineering students can’t write. This truism is proven wrong with every new issue of illumin online magazine ( Put out by the University of Southern California, the magazine is written and edited by USC engineering undergraduates. The articles are culled from papers turned in for WRIT 340: Advanced Writing Communication for Engineers. The class, required for all junior- and senior-level engineering undergraduates, teaches students how to communicate the technical aspects of their field to lay readers. “We always want to disprove the belief that engineers can’t communicate clearly,” says Steve Bucher, faculty adviser to illumin and director of USC’s engineering writing program.

The course and the magazine, he adds, are about more than improving engineering students’ writing skills. “The goal is to explain the role of engineering in everyday life.” And especially, he adds, how engineering enhances everyday life. He says writing for a nontechnical audience gives the students greater insight into their subject matter, forcing them to wrestle esoteric concepts into plain English.

Former editor Melissa Patterson, a biomedical engineering and English major, sees parallels between her work at illumin and in her first year of Harvard Law. “They [engineering and law] both have specialized vocabularies,” she says. “It’s a challenge translating them into words people can understand so they can engage the material.” Patterson worked at the magazine during her fourth and fifth years at USC while completing her double major. Like most involved with the magazine, she worked there until she graduated.

A group of seven people make illumin happen: five editors, a Web designer, and a graphic artist. The editors visit the WRIT 340 classes to let students know what kind of articles they’re looking for and “to get them excited about publishing their writing,” Patterson says. Not all papers are automatically published. Some aren’t up to the magazine’s standards and others are simply on topics already covered.

“We like to have as eclectic a mix of stories as we can get,” Bucher says. Initially, he says he thought of having theme issues, but decided eclecticism would offer readers a broader view of engineering. The Spring 2004 issue has articles on lie detectors, time travel, and the development of the bicycle.

Every submission is gone over by at least three editors. Once an issue’s articles are chosen, editors write a pop-up glossary of technical terms readers aren’t likely to be familiar with. The articles then come to Bucher, who makes the final edits before the issue is put online.

Bucher says illumin is written for the general reader interested in engineering and science, “the kind of people who would watch NOVA or the Discovery Channel.” The magazine has gotten 1.7 million hits since its inception. Bucher says he’s received feedback from across the country and around the world. One E-mail, he says, came from a father in Colombia. He’d read an illumin article on Lasik eye surgery and was looking for help for his daughter, suffering from a degenerative eye disease. Another E-mail came from a bowling team in Bahrain that wanted to use the speed guns featured in an article to measure the speed of bowling balls.

Bucher says most of the feedback comes from American high school teachers wanting to know more about a topic treated in an article. This dovetails with his plans for illumin to focus on high school teachers and their students. Bucher would like the magazine to become “a resource for teachers and students…providing quiz questions, lab ideas, et cetera.” This, he hopes, will bring more kids into engineering and help illumin to become a vehicle to show them “what they’re getting into when they choose engineering.”


Robert Gardner is an associate editor at Prism.


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