Campus: University of Washington 

9. Engineering concepts for a 4th grader

Educator: Seana Davidson, Research Associate Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering
Context: Out of class; Special Topics in Civil & Environmental Engineering: Technical writing workshop
Keywords: technical writing, professional development
Student Activity Time: 1-3 hours

Students reflected on two writing assignments and several practical methods to improve technical writing skills.

Introducing the Reflection Activity

Writing and explaining technical material for a lay audience is an essential skill for engineering students and professionals. An educator used a translation writing assignment followed by a reflection activity to prompt students to consider their writing style, the challenges associated with technical writing, and consideration for the readers of their writing.

Early in the term, the educator assigned a translation writing task. The students selected science or engineering literature that they were interested in, rewrote 4-5 paragraphs in their own words, reviewed it, and rewrote the text for a 4th grader. The educator read and graded the students’ assignments for completion and returned them in the next class meeting. During the class meeting, the educator gave the students a few minutes to write about their observations and the experience of translating technical material. The educator then facilitated a 20-minute conversation about the assignment and asked students why they felt the 4th grade version was better than the first translation version.

As a result of the activity, students were able to consider how their technical writing can be understood or misunderstood by both fellow engineers and the general public. They also recognized the iterative nature of technical writing and identified strategies to ensure that their writing could be well understood by others.

 Recreating the Reflection Activity

Step Description
1 Give students a week to translate a piece of science or engineering work into their own words, and then for a fourth grader.
2 Collect and grade the assignment.
3 Offer students approximately 5 minutes to write about the translation assignment.
4 Facilitate a class discussion about technical writing and strategies for effective technical writing.
In the words of the Educator: Tips and Inspiration

Keep the audience in mind. I put the activity in the context of 4th graders because when you’re writing for the general public it should be right around that reading level. In order to communicate with someone who is outside of your immediate field, you have to take into consideration that they just may not know the jargon or assumptions that you do. In the beginning I also show the “Talk nerdy to me” TED talk by Melissa Marshall. After they do it, I give them a chance to write about the assignment and then we talk. I always give them a chance to write on their own, as it helps to have a substantive conversation as a class. 

Have them do it more than once. This was a very good exercise in general because it gets students to think about their own voice and style in writing. The next time, I’ll make this a regular exercise instead of changing assignments every week. There were students who picked up really complex technical pieces that were very difficult to translate into language for a 4th grader. It may have frustrated the students to write it, but it’s still beneficial because there is a benefit to trying to simplify these difficult concepts.

What was the inspiration for the reflection activity? Technical papers don’t always include difficult concepts or content, but it is presented in a difficult way to understand. The order in which you go from point A to point B, to C and D is not always in that order – there isn’t always a clear story. When you’re talking to a 4th grader, you have to tell them a sequential story. I want students to take a step back and say “what is the essence of this piece that I just read? What does it actually mean? How do they actually do this?” Then their goal is to tell it to a 4th grader. The other reason I think the 4th grade version is so much better is because they have already done the first draft in their own, more sophisticated words. Then the 4th grade version becomes the second clearer draft.

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