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2015 January 4

New tech writing course

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In my request for comments, xykademiqz mentioned that she’d like to hear about the tech writing course I’m planning.

Planning this course has been a bit of weird exercise for me, because it is the first time that I’m designing a course that I won’t teach. Normally, I design courses that I teach, which occasionally get transferred to some other teacher.  Here, I’m trying to modify a course I designed and taught for a long time, adapting it to a new audience. But I’ve not taught the original course since Winter 2003 (11 years ago!), and I don’t plan to teach this one, as I already have a more-than-full teaching load.  I’ve paid my dues teaching tech writing, having taught it sixteen times (1987–2003).

The course I originally created was for computer engineering majors, but this one is for bioengineers, specifically those in the biomolecular engineering concentration.

The rest of this post is the “Undergraduate Supplemental Sheet—Information to accompany Request for Course Approval” that is required at UCSC for approval of any new course. I have sent the form off to the Committee on Educational Policy, the committee of the Academic Senate that reviews new courses. I’m hoping to get approval for our department to offer this course in Spring 2015, so there isn’t much time for revision if they decide that they don’t like something. I’ve left a number of design questions in the document, although this is not usually done for CEP course approvals, to emphasize that this course is a work in progress, and to give them some idea of the adjustments that are likely to be needed in the first couple of years. The course design has been discussed by a group of five faculty, two or whom are likely to teach the course, and one of whom is likely to be a guest lecturer for it.  I welcome further discussion—particularly suggestions for more specific exercises (for the graphics and the library puzzle, for example).


Sponsoring Agency: Biomolecular Engineering Course #: 185
Catalog Title: Technical Writing for Biomolecular Engineers
Catalog copy:

Writing by biomolecular engineers, not to general audiences, but to engineers, engineering managers, and technical writers. Exercises include job application and resume, library puzzle, graphics, lab protocols, document specification, progress report, survey article or research proposal, poster, and oral presentation.

Enrollment limited to bioengineering majors, or by permission of instructor.

Prerequisite(s): satisfaction of Entry Level Writing and Composition requirements; and Biology 101L (biochemistry lab).
BIOL 101L may be taken concurrently.

Enrollment limited to 20.

1. Are you proposing a revision to an existing course?  If so give the name, number, and GE designations (if applicable) currently held.


2. In concrete, substantive terms explain how the course will proceed. List the major topics to be covered, preferably by week.

The course will consist primarily of writing and feedback on that writing, with some lectures and readings on common problems. There will be a substantive writing assignment due every week, and the week-by-week outline below lists the assignment that the student will complete that week—some will need to have been started much sooner, so that students may be working on multiple assignments simultaneously.

The list below is the initial design of the course, but we expect that the assignments in the course will evolve, depending on how well they work to develop students’ facility and scientific and engineering writing

Week 1: Job application letter, resume, and letter of recommendation.
The purpose of this assignment is to focus student attention on audience assessment, in a practical format that they see the point of.

Week 2: Library research.

Students will have a library information session, in which they learn how to locate lab protocols, material safety data sheets, and databases of important molecular biology reagents. There will be a library search quiz, with specific questions relevant to biomolecular engineers that use databases learned about in the library information session.  Students will have to write up their search strategies, and not just the results of their searches.

Correct citations in a consistent style will be essential, though students will not be held to any particular style, as the field has an enormous diversity of preferred styles. Use of citation tools (such as Zotero or BibTeX) will be strongly encouraged.

The library puzzle questions will feed into the later assignments: data for the graphics assignment, lab protocols that can be blended together for the lab protocol assignment, and so forth.

Design questions to explore in the first couple of years: can we come up with suitable questions, similar in difficulty to those in each year?  How much can questions be re-used from year to year?  Can lab managers and librarians be enlisted to help update the questions frequently?

Weeks 3&4: Design of scientific graphics

Students will prepare at least three different graphics, including a scatter diagram, a line or box plot with error bars, and a block or cartoon diagram of a process. Figures for this assignment must be generated by the student, not copied from the web or other sources. Students will be allowed to use almost any graphics tool (gnuplot, R, MATLAB, matplotlib, Python, Inkscape, …) except Excel, which is often the only tool students have previously used, and which produces unacceptable graphics with the default settings.

Concepts taught will include some of the main concepts in Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information, though that book will not be required for the course (too expensive for the small amount the students will use). Important concepts include avoiding chart junk (especially fake 3D), proper scale and range of axes (including when to use log scales), “up is good”, people only understand straight lines, and making the graphics tell the story.

Also included will be the notion of floating figures with figure numbers and paragraph-long captions, as many students do not seem to have learned this standard style for scientific and engineering reports before their senior thesis.

Design questions for the first few years: What public data sets should we use? (Census data? RNA expression data?) Students need to be able to find the data as part of the library puzzle.  How should the material be broken up between the two weeks—two separate assignments or draft and final version?  For the first run, it would probably be easier to have separate assignments.

Week 5: Writing a lab protocol.

Many biomolecular engineers will end up with jobs as lab technicians, where they will have to read and write lab protocols. This assignment is intended to get them familiar with the format and conventions.

Design question: What lab protocol can students be asked to write? It must be simple enough that an undergrad can write it, but not just a copying task from some source of protocols.

Staffing questions: Will the instructors that we hire for BME 185 be able to read and comment on lab protocols appropriately (pointing out missing steps or incorrect units, for example)? Will we need a guest lecture explaining the protocol that the students will then write up?

Discussions among writing faculty and biomolecular wet-lab researchers have lead to a few ideas for the protocol to try for the first offering.  It looks likely that a guest lecture from a wet-lab researcher will be needed from someone familiar with the protocol to be written.

Week 6: Final project proposal

The students will write a proposal for the paper they will write as the final project for the course.  Note that this is not a research proposal, but a writing proposal, in which they will describe the topic, the intended audience, and the format of the project.

The project should be a survey article, prior-work section of a senior thesis, or other project that involves substantial library research.  Students should include at least five citations for work that they will be consulting in writing the project.

Key concepts for proposal writing include getting the precise definition of the research question or design goal into the first paragraph.  For this assignment the design goal is the paper to be written, and the specifications for that paper.

Week 7:    Oral presentation

Students do a 5-10-minute individual (not group) oral presentation with visual aids (PowerPoint, Keynote, HTML, or
PDF format).  Students will be taught the design of visual aids for scientific talks (which have a little more content than some other types of visual aids) as well as standard public speaking techniques for eye contact, gestures, expressive voice, pace of talk, and controlling nervousness.

It may be a good idea to have half a class period dedicated to voice projection, including going out into the woods to practice speaking loudly.  The course will not cover techniques for working with microphones, as that is a more specialized skill that would require extra equipment in the classroom.

Design questions to address in the first few years:

The oral presentations will have to be spread out over several class periods, and they represent a major constraint on the class size. At 10 minutes, the oral presentations for a 20-student class would consume an entire week of class time. How much class time can be spent on presentations?  Will 5-minute presentations suffice?

Video recording the presentations and having individual feedback on the presentations would be valuable, but the logistics of arranging for the video recording and scheduling feedback sessions may be too difficult to sustain.  Just rendering videos into a usable format can take 10 times as long as the recording.  Is there any campus-level support for doing this?

Week 8:    E-mail Progress Report and draft

Students write a 100-200-word e-mail memo explaining the status of their final project and attach a draft of their paper for detailed feedback.  This assignment practices professional e-mail style, the content of progress reports, and ensures that they do not put off starting their final report.

Class time will include discussion of professional e-mail and social media (such as blogs), and the differences from the informal social media they may be used to.

Week 9:    Poster presentation

Students design, print, and present a poster, preferably on a research topic they are pursuing in another course.  This will usually be related to their final project, but it may be a different project.

Students will be taught the visual flow of posters, the trade-off between detailed information and readability of a poster, font sizes, color choices, and the need for posters to be comprehensible as stand-alone documents.

Because of the time required to print a poster, students will probably be presenting their posters in week 10, or even during the scheduled final exam time.

Week 10:    Final project report will be due at the time of the final exam slot.

3. System-wide Senate Regulation 760 specifies that 1 academic credit corresponds to 3 hours of work per week for the student in a 10-week quarter.  Please briefly explain how the course will lead to the appropriate amount of work with reference to e.g., lectures, sections, reading and writing assignments, examination preparation, field trips, providing specific estimate of the number of hours devoted to each.
[Please note that if significant changes are proposed to the format of the course after its initial approval, you will need to submit new course approval paperwork to answer this question in light of the new course format.]

There will be 3.5 lecture hours a week, about 1.5 hours of reading, and 10 hours of writing and editing, for a total of 15 hours a week.

4. Include a complete reading list or its equivalent in other media.

The main text book will be Huckin and Olsen’s Technical Writing and Communication for Nonnative Speakers of English (ISBN 978-0070308251, which is out of print but is available used for under $30, see with particular attention to Part 5 (Readability).  Within Part 5, Chapters 21 (Readability: General Principles), 22 (Writing Paragraphs), 24 (Maintaining Focus), and 25 (Creating Flow between Sentences) are particularly valuable.

Individual students may be referred to chapters in Part 6 (Review of Grammar, Style and Vocabulary Building) as needed.  Chapters 29 (Indefinite Articles) and 30 (The Definite Article) are particularly valuable for non-native speakers whose native language does not use articles (Russian, for example, and many Asian languages).

Design question:  will sufficient copies of the book remain available at a reasonable price?  Is there any other text that provides the quality of parts 5 and 6 of Huckin and Olsen for readability and non-native grammar?

5. State the basis on which evaluation of individual students’ achievements in this course will be made by the instructor (e.g., class participation, examinations, papers, projects). Enumerate the minimum required learning outcomes for a student to pass this course. (Example: ability to do comparative analysis of a Western and a non-Western text.) Provide information on how these components are weighted.

Students will be evaluated on their writing and on their oral and poster presentations.  Each of the assignments will have roughly equal weight, with perhaps a little more weight on assignments towards the end of the quarter than ones toward the beginning (so that students whose writing improves during the quarter are suitably rewarded).

6. Final examinations are required of all undergraduate courses unless CEP approves an alternate method of comprehensive evaluation (e.g., a term paper). Note: final papers in lieu of final examinations must be due during final examination week, and not before. If the course does not have a final examination, indicate the alternative method of comprehensive evaluation.

There is no final examination, as the skills of interest in this class are those displayed when students have adequate time, not those testable in a 3-hour time slot.  The final report for the quarter, which is a culmination of several intermediate assignments, will be due at the final exam time.  Although the report itself only carries between 10% and 20% of the total grade, previous assignments that lead to the report make the total weight of the project closer to 50% of the grade.

The poster presentation session may be held during the final exam time slot, though it is clearly not a final exam.

7. Please describe the learning objectives that you would ascribe to this course: What do you expect the student to be able to do or understand that would not have been expected of them before taking the class? How do these outcomes support the larger goals of the program(s) in which the course is embedded? (Example: the learning outcome of ability to do comparative analysis of a Western and non-Western text support the Literature objective of cross-cultural inquiry.)

After finishing this course, students should be able to write comprehensible technical reports on biomolecular engineering topics, produce research posters, and prepare and give oral presentations with visual aids on technical topics.

8. List other UCSC courses covering similar material (if any) and how the proposed course differs from these existing courses.

The course is very similar to Computer Engineering 185, Technical Writing for Computer Engineers, after which it is modeled.  The main differences are in the background of the students and in the topics the students are expected to write about.  The biomolecular engineering class assumes more biology background and less programming background.  The “lab protocol” assignment, for example, is highly typical of the sort of writing biomolecular engineers may do in industry, but is not at all similar to what computer engineers write (user documentation and in-program documentation).

A major reason for creating this course is that CMPE 185 has reached capacity, and more variants of it are needed for different engineering majors.  This course is an attempt to provide that variant for biomolecular engineers, as they are the students currently required to take CMPE 185 who fit the course least well.

9. List expected resource requirements including course support and specialized facilities or equipment for divisional review. (This information must also be reported to the scheduling office each quarter the course is offered.)

No special facilities are needed for this course, but it needs a high instructor-to-student ratio, in order to provide the extensive feedback necessary for a writing class with large weekly assignments.  No more than 20 students per instructor or TA is feasible.

Poster printing (through Baskin Engineering Lab Services) will be needed, and the department is willing to pay for poster printing at the current rates (but not rush fees, which will be the student responsibility).

10. If applicable, justify any pre-requisites, co-requisites, or enrollment restrictions proposed for this course.  For pre-requisites or co-requisites sponsored by other departments/programs, please provide evidence of consultation.

Students must have already completed the C1 and C2 writing courses, so that the instructor can focus on discipline-specific writing requirements and not have to spend much time on the basics of writing.

Students must have completed enough biology or biotech courses to be able to read and write technical reports on biomolecular engineering. In order to write lab protocols, students need to have followed molecular biology protocols themselves, which they encounter in BIOL 101L (or the discontinued older equivalents BIOL 100K or BME 150L).

BIOL 101L is already a required course for the biomolecular engineering concentration of the bioengineering BS degree, so including it as a prerequisite does not increase the demand for the course.

One possible problem is that the prerequisite chain to BIOL 101L is already very long, and adding the whole prerequisite chain before BME 185 and having BME 123T require CMPE 185 or BME 185 as prereq may constrain when students can take BME 185 too tightly. Offering BME 185 multiple times a year (Fall, Winter, Summer, for example) would alleviate this problem, if we can afford that many sections.  Some students who have molecular biology lab experience before transferring to UCSC or from individual research may be able to take BME 185 without BME 101L.

11. Proposals for new or revised Disciplinary Communication courses will be considered within the context of the approved DC plan for the relevant major(s).  If applicable, please complete and submit: the Disciplinary Communication Statement Form—new proposals (Word or PDF) or Disciplinary Communication—revisions to approved plans (Word or

The current DC requirement for bioengineering centers on CMPE 185, Technical Writing for Computer Engineers, with more communication practice in the capstone requirement.

This new course is intended to be a compatible substitute for CMPE 185 for bioengineers, specifically tailored for the biomolecular concentration (for whom the current CMPE 185 is not as good a fit).

The revision to the current plan is trivial:  everywhere that CMPE 185 is mentioned, the new plan will say “CMPE 185 or BME 185”.

12. If you are requesting a GE designation for the proposed course, please justify your request by answering the questions listed in the attached guidelines. Please make reference to specific elements in the course or syllabus when answering these questions.

No designation other than DC is sought.

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