This Course at MIT

"This Course at MIT" pages provide context for how the course materials published on OCW were used at MIT. Please help us develop this project by completing the OCW Educator Survey.

Course Overview

This page focuses on the course 21W.732 Science Writing and New Media as it was taught by David Custer and Elizabeth A. Page in Fall 2010. This course is now offered under the course number 21W.033.

Taught as part of MIT's Experimental Study Group (ESG), this course frames writing, graphics, meetings, oral presentation, collaboration, and design as tools for product development. Students work in teams to conceive, design, as well as prototype their projects while exercising and improving their communication skills. In teaching this course, David focuses on presenting dualities of learning: the humanistic and the technical, and also the communicative and collaborative.

Course Outcomes

By the time they complete the course, students should be able to solve open-ended, interdisciplinary problems, and convey their work in both writing and oral presentation tasks. Students should be competent and confident when making lexical, textual, and rhetorical choices as they shape their communication.

Curriculum Information

Prerequisites

None

Requirements Satisfied

  • HASS
  • CI-H
  • CI-HW

Offered

Every fall semester

 

Student Information

On average, about 10 students take this course each year.

Breakdown by Year

Since many freshmen are required to take a CI-HW during their first semester at MIT, the class generally comprises all freshmen.

Breakdown by Major

Because the subject is taken a semester before majors are declared, students taking 21W.732 do not have an official major. About 75% of students who have completed 21W.732 choose to major in an engineering discipline, and about 5% choose to major in a humanities discipline, with a good majority of that in CMS or 21W.

Typical Student Background

  • Students are asked to outline their design experience on the first day of class. They often display a wide range of experience and attitudes. There are the students who have been involved in explicit design projects (e.g., FIRST Lego® robotics competitions) and are confident in their ability to engage in the design process, while others have not participated in projects that are “labeled” as design, and are unsure of their aptitude for design work. All students, regardless of design experience, are capable of succeeding in this course.
  • Many students take this subject because they are more interested in product design than the other flavors of CI-HW courses offered at MIT. Although this course is technically not a mechanical engineering course, it permits students to explore what it means to be a mechanical engineer during their first semester at MIT.
  • Most students come equipped with a sound mathematical background. It is a rare student who does not have the math skills required to argue intelligently about the exponential decay of the temperature in a cup of coffee. (These students are given a very quick introduction to derivatives and e to the -kt.) Students do, however, show a wide range of backgrounds and abilities in their use of the English language. Still, if you put any six students together, they have sufficient control of 95% of the skills and knowledge needed to communicate effectively.

Enrollment Cap

ESG generally has a limit of 12 students, and CI-HW caps at 18. Having more than 18 students in a writing/communication subject would make it difficult to provide reasonable feedback in a timely manner.

Ideal Class Size

The short, informal presentations early in the semester are an important component in the course. With 12 students, it is possible to have all of the students give oral presentations during a week of class time. Enrolling more students would necessitate either more class time or fewer presentations. 

 

How Student Time Was Spent

During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:

Lecture

4 hours per week

    Class time consists of interactive “lectures,” discussion, exercises, oral presentations, teamwork and collaboration, design project work, writing workshops, and providing feedback and reflection. The overarching goal during class time is to foster a community in which its members feel comfortable with interacting with each other, introducing and reinforcing communication “curriculum,” and providing a legitimate context for communication.

 

Out of Class

8 hours per week

    Students engage in team meetings, conferences, and project development outside of class. They also spend time on completing a number of assignments that include writing exercises, required readings, and maintaining a design notebook.

 

Semester Breakdown

WEEK M T W Th F
1 No classes throughout MIT. Lecture session. No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled.
2 Lecture session. Lecture session. No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled.
3 Lecture session. Lecture session. No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled.
4 No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled.
5 No session scheduled. Lecture session; project presentations. No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled.
6 No classes throughout MIT. Lecture session. No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled.
7 No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled.
8 No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled. Lecture session; project presentations. No session scheduled.
9 No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled.
10 No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled. No classes throughout MIT. No session scheduled.
11 No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled.
12 No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled. No classes throughout MIT. No classes throughout MIT.
13 No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled. Lecture session. No session scheduled.
14 No session scheduled. Lecture session; project presentations. No session scheduled. Lecture session. No classes throughout MIT.
15 No classes throughout MIT. No classes throughout MIT. No classes throughout MIT. No classes throughout MIT. No classes throughout MIT.
Displays the color and pattern used on the preceding table to indicate dates when classes are not held at MIT. No classes throughout MIT
Displays the color used on the preceding table to indicate dates when class sessions are held. Lecture session
Displays the color used on the preceding table to indicate dates when no class session is scheduled. No class session scheduled
Displays the symbol used on the preceding table which indicates dates when the project presentations are held. Project presentations
 

Instructor Insights

By providing students with an environment in which they can answer each other’s questions and refine those discoveries over time, they will learn how to apply themselves consciously as problem-solvers.

—David Custer

Below, David Custer describes various aspects of teaching 21W.732 Science Writing and New Media.

Creation of a Rich Learning Environment

Over the last seven years or so, I have shifted much emphasis to making teamwork and collaboration succeed. This is partially because students in this course need the opportunity to practice such collaboration and also because if the collaboration works, then the communication follows. By providing students with an environment in which they can answer each other’s questions and refine those discoveries over time, they will learn how to apply themselves consciously as problem-solvers. Ultimately, I want my students to become intellectuals – rational inhabitants of the world of ideas.

My experience with having taught both linear and nonlinear versions of this course leads me to believe that the nonlinear subject, situated in a genuine context, provides a much richer learning environment. And that any loss of communication “rigor” is more than offset by the gains made in the attitude and beliefs that students have regarding communication tasks. I don’t have data (yet) to rigorously support this contention, but anecdotally, I have not met a communication instructor who has experimented with both linear and nonlinear versions and prefers the linear. On the student side, many freshmen are challenged by the nonlinear, open-ended, fractal academic tasks. First-year students often expect weekly assignments with problems that can be done in order and independently.

Takeaways from the Product Design Projects

The product design projects are central to the communication instruction because the design projects motivate communication. As a piece of advice, this duality cannot be achieved simply by merging an existing writing course with an existing design course. Instead, the course should be structured and designed from scratch in collaboration with instructors from both spheres. The balance between the design project and the communication component is tricky because in light of the communication focus, many elements of product design can only be addressed superficially. Even so, the design projects make visible the transition from idea to product through sketches and prototyping so that it is possible to visibly demonstrate what it means to develop an idea. At the end of the course, the resulting prototypes are tactile, visible embodiments of the students’ ideas. Consequently, the expertise that students derive from the design projects gives them a unique authority from which to write and communicate.

Preparation for Teaching the Course

I see one of my significant roles as being “game-master.” As such, the challenge is to create a “world” or perhaps an “educational micro-environment” for my students and populate it with a schedule of challenges for them to undertake. Preparing for the semester is largely a question of making sure the resources are in place and the schedule is realistic. Laying out all the assignments so that the projects lead to communication in the context of instruction is one example of a scheduling challenge. In developing the course, significant time has been devoted to fine-tuning the schedule and the assignments.