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Fostering a Culture of Writing at the Colorado School of Mines

Nearly every day, articles and reports are published that highlight the importance of writing to the science and engineering disciplines. Good technical writing is essential so that policy-makers and the public can be informed about emerging technologies like genetic engineering or nanotechnology, and make decisions about important issues like energy production and water use. But these same publications often simultaneously lament the lack of clear, impactful scientific communication that can reach a broad audience. Fortunately, every weekday, dozens of future scientists and engineers come to the Writing Center at the Colorado School of Mines to make sure they’re not part of that problem. This campus resource is one of the ways that Mines emphasizes the importance of communication to students in fields like Mining, Environmental Engineering, and Geophysics: it’s one of the critical skills they need in order for their work and research to influence the world.

Throughout the last 25 years, The CSM Writing Center has undergone many changes. It has been located in four different buildings, has offered a variety of tutoring services and communication-related resources, and has utilized professors, adjuncts, and staff as tutors. Now, with more and more emphasis being placed on communication in science and engineering education by both the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) and by Mines’s own newly-adopted strategic plan, the Writing Center’s importance to the campus community and the curriculum has never been greater. So it’s good news that use of the Center has increased dramatically in recent years: we’ve gone from providing 101 consultations in Fall 2011 to providing 625 in Fall 2013. 

We began this past fall semester with a new home in a building that houses the Chemical and Biological Engineering Departments and the College of Applied Sciences and Engineering offices. The Writing Center sits off a hallway full of classrooms where students take courses like Computer Science, Linear Algebra, and British Literature. This location has facilitated an uptick in drop-in traffic to the Writing Center; students often come by to hang out between classes, warm up coffee in our microwave, work on the ongoing community Scrabble game, or ask a quick question about writing.

For the past two academic years, the Writing Center has also had an outpost in the Center for Academic Services and Advising, which provides tutoring and additional faculty help in core classes like Calculus, Physics, Thermodynamics, and Fluids. Adding writing tutoring to that mix has helped raise the visibility of Writing Center, but more importantly, it has emphasized to students that writing is just as essential of a skill for engineers as math and science are. Because of these new activities and locations, undergraduate use of the Writing Center has increased by 20% in the last two semesters.

Graduate students have always made up a large proportion of the Writing Center clientele. We work with them not only on theses and dissertations, but also funding proposals, job talks, conference presentations, and article submissions. One of our most popular workshops in recent semesters, “Effective Personal Statements,” is tailored for current and future graduate students.

Free workshops like these are another way that the Writing Center promotes a culture of writing on campus. Many are tailored to the needs of science and engineering writers, such as recent sessions on “Crafting the Abstract,” and “Clarity in Technical Writing,” but others are geared towards English language learners (those pesky Articles!) or general communication skills. For instance, a group of staff members from the Facilities department joined us for a workshop on “Email Communication.”

So while our main audience is students, the CSM Writing Center is here to support the entire campus community. One faculty member in Chemical Engineering tries to bring every article or proposal he’s working on to the Writing Center for a read-through before submission, and staff from a variety of different departments have made appointments for help with form letters and reports. We’re also increasing our outreach to specific classes by providing presentations and workshops about writing in courses like Introduction to Research in Chemistry and Engineering Electromagnetics.

The Writing Center is coordinated by faculty in the Division of Liberal Arts and International Studies, and is staffed by professional tutors who hold advanced degrees in Writing or related fields. We all have extensive experience in tutoring technical students, and this level of expertise has bolstered our credibility on campus. Some of us are also engaged in research on teaching and tutoring science and engineering writing, and have presented our work at conferences like the Colorado and Wyoming Writing Tutors Association Conference and the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.

We do see it as our mission to help each individual become a more confident and capable writer, but on a larger level we want to be a center for emphasizing the importance and value of good technical communication. There’s so much amazing science and engineering happening at the Colorado School of Mines, from undergraduate and graduate student projects to faculty research. The Writing Center is committed to helping these scientists and engineers get the word out about their important work. After all, as the 19th century physician William Osler said, “In science credit goes to the [one] who convinces the world, not to the [one] to whom the idea first occurs.”

 By Sarah Jayne Hitt, Teaching Assistant Professor and Writing Center Coordinator