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"Writing Skills Are Universal": Engineering and Data in the Composition Classroom

December 06, 2022 Monica Wolfe

“True education is the blend of the humanities and STEM, not the separation of them,” writes ICaP instructor Jen Hughes. A veteran teacher of Purdue’s Learning Community courses, Hughes has offered to share insights into the collaborative teaching and learning opportunities offered by the science-humanities crossover program.

students sit together in pairs and work together on laptops in a classroomEach Learning Community brings together approximately one hundred students who take a bundle of three thematically linked courses together in the Fall followed by two in the Spring. This semester, Hughes is teaching English 106 as part of the Learning Community “Engineering in the World of Data.” Students in her composition course also take Dr. Michael Witt’s ILS 103 (Introduction to Data Lifecycle Management) and Dr. Sean Brophy’s ENGR 131 (Transforming Ideas into Innovation). The linked courses are designed to complement one another: material Hughes teaches in Composition, like the Technical Report, gives students skills they need for projects in their STEM courses, and those courses lend content matter to be explored in research projects and literature reviews for English 106.

This year, Witt and Hughes were awarded an Innovation Hub Lilly Grant for their project "Incorporating Data and Computation with Multimodal Composition Instruction." The hybrid project combines skills from ILS 103, ENGL 106, as well as ENGR 103 in the Spring semester. Throughout the course of the project, students develop individual research projects using inquiry-based humanities research skills as well as data sets and visualizations. Hughes notes that this project has "a heavy focus on ICaP's Course Outcome 6," which is to engage multiple digital technologies to compose for different purposes, "as students will create and publish their project in a specialized platform called Google Colaboratory." This platform allows for both text and code—literature reviews and data visualizations—in a single document, giving students a chance to showcase their interdisciplinary work seamlessly.

In addition to taking classes together and working on projects together, students in a Learning Community participate in events and contests, and they live together as roommates and neighbors in the same residence hall.

a group of students dressed in halloween costumes show off their attire during a costume contest“It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to watch students attend class together, who also reside together. It shows. I've never seen such close bonds between students. They study together, assist each other, and tutor each other. They wait around for each other when class is dismissed, and they’ll all walk to lunch together,” Hughes says.

Students build further bonds through multimodal communication, from their linked projects in Google Colaboratory to a shared Discord channel for student conversation.

While some professors have expressed concern about students using Discord, as noted in the Inside Higher Ed article, “My Students Started a Discord Server. Now What?” some instructors, including Hughes and her Learning Community partners Witt and Brophy, have embraced Discord as a platform for supplemental communication outside of the classroom.

Hughes explains, “Brightspace is one hub ICaP instructors can use for instruction, but Brightspace doesn't feel like a social media platform at all. On the other hand, Discord can be more effective on the social side of learning and has a better user experience than a Brightspace discussion forum.”

For ICaP instructors who are curious about incorporating Discord into their own courses, Hughes has some advice: “Discord would be an excellent place for ICaP instructors to house classroom discussions, allow students to share paper topic ideas, require student introductions, or ask students to post a pic from a break, a photo of their pet, or an insightful comment they learned from class for the week. Discord could work well for strictly academic content, for more social engagement to build community, or for a blend of these worlds.”

a group of students poses with Executive in Residence Clayton Brizendine outside in front of a brick wallBeyond the close-knit community aspect of Learning Communities, the linked-course structure offers opportunities for expanding the boundaries of teaching composition. All of the students in Hughes’ Learning Community classes are First-Year Engineering students, and this demographic affects how Hughes approaches teaching.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to learn cross-content material,” Hughes says. “It’s exciting to study data science, and students love the subject, so their passion for data fuels mine.”

Hughes also notes the larger scale benefits of teaching the “Engineering in the World of Data” theme: “What an era to study data. Pre-, Mid-, and Post-Pandemic data in every area (from employment to streaming services) will likely be studied for generations and the availability of open-source data, large data sets, and new ways of analyzing data can inform ways of living better in the future.”

Teaching students to compose with their STEM major in mind makes clear the importance of composition skills in any field—not just the humanities. In Learning Communities, the immediate applicability of writing becomes clearer to students. STEM-focused students learn, as Hughes explains, that “writing skills are universal.”

While Learning Community students benefit from a range of opportunities in their linked courses, their most important takeaway from the English 106 component is that, in Hughes’ words, “if the scientist doesn't have the ability to explain their work with sound writing ability, then their impeccable subject knowledge might be hidden from view. Clear writing ability is the vehicle to get brilliant ideas out into the world. Without good writers, brilliant ideas go nowhere.”


Headshot of Jen Hughes, smiling.Jen Hughes received both her B.A. (Creative Writing, '00) and M.A. (English Literature, '03) from Purdue. She has been an educator in higher education for 17 years in places like Arizona State University and Mesa Community College. She lived in the gorgeous city of Phoenix, Arizona, for 13 years before returning home to Purdue. Her professional interests include digital learning, experiential learning, and course design. She enjoys music, movies, and writing fiction for fun.



headshot of Monica Wolfe sitting at a table and holding a coffee cup

Monica Wolfe is current editor of ICaP News and a PhD candidate in Literature, Theory, and Cultural Studies at Purdue. Their research centers on 21st century American literature and visual storytelling, and their work with ICaP focuses on online content management and improving digital teaching and learning experiences.




Student photographs courtesy of Jen Hughes.