One of the many questions science has yet to definitively answer is how neurons encode information.
That’s why the National Academy scheduled a workshop on this important subject. It asked a leading proponent of the theory that neural coding is based on the rate at which neurons fire their action potentials to give a keynote address. But a second speech will be delivered by another top researcher who advances an opposing theory: that coding results from the patterns of the action potential discharges. The researchers are eager to impress the distinguished audience by displaying a full grasp of the topic.
Accordingly, they both assign a team of bioengineering graduate students to research the literature and write a thorough report on alternative hypotheses for coding.
A plausible scenario? To be sure. But it’s actually a clever bit of fiction, albeit one that wasn’t devised to deceive or entertain, but to teach. The scene-setter was successfully used at Northwestern University in a junior-year bioengineering course—Neural Systems Physiology—to boost the writing skills of third-year students, while simultaneously helping them grasp a difficult subject. In a recent study, Northwestern researchers showed that the role-playing scenario—coupled with a classroom mini-debate—prodded students not only to make stronger written arguments but to improve their ability to synthesize and condense material from multiple research papers.
Role-playing and debates are examples of innovative techniques that engineering faculty--often working with professional writing instructors--are using to sharpen student writing abilities. Educators argue that the best way to hone students’ writing skills is to insert more writing instruction into engineering curricula. “If engineering students only rely on freshman English classes, they often find they can’t translate those skills to their engineering classes or professional work,” explains Penny Hirsch, associate director of Northwestern’s Writing Program and one of the researchers involved in the experiment. It’s also a signal to students that writing matters. “It’s particularly important to include [writing] assignments in engineering courses, which engineering students take much more seriously than they take the general education courses, where writing is usually taught,” explains Richard Felder, a chemical engineering professor emeritus at North Carolina State University who now co-directs the National Effective Teaching Institute.
Since the advent of the ABET 2000 accreditation process, which stresses writing skills, there’s been a bigger push to make engineering students better communicators. Industry, too, has been vocal in demanding engineering graduates who can effectively communicate and work in teams. Hirsch says the writing skills of engineering students are typically no better nor worse than those of most undergraduates. But, she adds, all their writing instruction has been in English classes. “They haven’t had much experience with engineering reports, lab reports, proposals and interview protocols . . . So if they receive no instruction in these areas in college, then it wouldn’t be surprising if faculty and people in industry assumed that their skills lagged behind.” And, says John Troy, the biomedical engineering professor who teaches the Northwestern course: “Being able to write well is becoming more and more important to their [engineers’] professional lives.”
Why? “Now it is very common for engineers to have to ‘sell’ their projects to managers through written reports or oral presentations. The emergence of the Internet has also increased the need for communication skills,” Troy says.
Many engineering academics, because they inhabit a publish-or-perish environment, possess fairly strong writing skills and are more than capable of handling writing instruction. Still, there remains some deeply rooted faculty resistance to teaching writing. Engineering instructors continue to fret that embedding writing instruction in their courses will be too time consuming. They’re also reluctant to make room for it by removing important course content. But there are ways to win them over. There’s a growing body of research that shows that writing instruction can be a good way to teach scientific or technical material. Neural coding is a subject undergraduates often find perplexing, and it’s also not covered that well in textbooks, Troy says.
“So it was a good topic for research and to also let students do some writing. We didn’t want to sacrifice content.” It can also be a big selling point to engineering faculty--often suspicious of qualitative research--when the positive results of in-class writing experiments can be quantitatively measured. And that was certainly the case with the Northwestern study, where researchers were able to compare papers going back seven years, a period during which they implemented a number of teaching techniques.
In 2003 and 2004, Troy’s students were divided into teams and asked to write two papers. In those years, they were also given in-class writing instruction and shown examples of well-written reports. A later assessment, comparing the more recent papers to earlier ones (from 1999 to 2002), showed the extra instruction had indeed helped students improve their lower-level skills, including grammar and mechanics, but not their higher-level ones.
In particular, they were still having trouble writing cogent arguments, synthesizing, and making good use of graphics. So in 2005, the role-playing scenario was introduced so students could better understand that the practical challenge of writing the paper was also a means to help them understand the material. It was important, too, to put them in the roles of grad students, rather than leading researchers, because that made the scenario seem more realistic to them.
In previous years, Troy devoted two classes to writing. In the first, he demonstrated to students how he would research and write a paper. The second class was devoted to showing students examples of professional reports. In 2005, it was decided to make the second class an interactive session. Two student teams--which were essentially enacting the roles of the two teams of grad students in the scenario--were picked to debate the theories. After the mini-debate, moderated by a teaching assistant, there was a wide-ranging Q&A session involving the entire class.
The debate was scheduled just a week before the reports’ deadline, in hopes that it would inspire students to make necessary revisions. Also, Troy purposely skipped the debate to avoid inhibiting the students, freeing them to speak their minds and not give answers they thought he would want to hear.
After Troy graded the 2005 papers, they and the previous year’s papers were blind-scored by three experts and another non-engineering faculty member, and the results were crunched using analytical software. And it was clear that the class of ‘05 had made measurable strides in their argumentation and synthesizing abilities, though they were still somewhat struggling with visual aids. Hirsch thinks the role-playing and debate worked because it forced students to take the writing more seriously.
“Previously,” she says, “students saw it as another research paper, something to be done to get a grade.” The methods also helped them to connect the writing to their efforts to master the complexities of neural coding, she adds. “It brought the issues alive to them.”
A Way to Improve Design
Hirsch is also involved with a freshman design course at Northwestern, Engineering Design and Communication (EDC), which stresses writing and is team-taught by engineering and Writing Program instructors. In it, students are taught that writing is a form of designing, and that the clearer their writing, the better their designs. The class mainly relies on coaching, not lectures -- a form of teaching that’s alien to some engineering faculty. Says Hirsch: “But that’s the innovation: more teaching by coaching.”
A growing number of other engineering schools now have strong writing programs, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Virginia Tech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Colorado School of Mines. Rice University has the Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication, whose mission is to ensure Rice engineering students graduate with strong communications skills. Cain instructors work with the engineering school. For example, in 1999, in the second half of a year-long introduction to biology course that’s mandatory for all bioengineering students (BIOS 202), students were given a chance for extra credit if they wrote a paper based on articles in newspapers and magazines. Within a few years, the instructors realized the value of the assignment, and it became mandatory. Moreover, they now also require students to base their papers on primary scientific literature, not popular media stories. Then there’s the Rice chemical engineering class that has teams writing and presenting reports to the City of Houston mayor’s staff on whether recycling reduces air pollution.
One Rice professor, who teaches a course in emerging technologies, has students prepare reports in the guise of a corporate chief technology officer. Felder, of the Effective Teaching Institute, advocates writing assignments that are in “engineering contexts, simulating the sorts of things the students are going to have to do as professionals,” including writing reports, letters, memos and promotional material. “Students can learn a great deal about writing from short, focused assignments that fit naturally into the courses," he says.
Linda Driskill, director of Rice’s Cain Project, says it’s also vital for engineering faculty to work with writing instructors, who can show them how to more efficiently insert writing assignments into their courses and make effective use of grad students. “You can’t just assign long reports. That doesn’t change things; that’s just busy work,” Driskill argues. Hirsch says many engineering professors like the notion that writing assignments can coincide with course material, and that no one expects them to teach grammar, punctuation and editing. That’s one role-playing scenario they can most certainly avoid.
Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in London.