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Technical Writing: Noyce Scholars Meet Technical Communication

T.R. Girill Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Noyce Scholars Meet Technical Communication

The Framework

The "Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program" (nfsnoyce.org)
is named for the founder of Intel, endorsed by the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, and funded by the
National Science Foundation (repeatedly reauthorized since 2002).
Its goal is to recruit undergraduate science majors to try science
teaching, and hence to bring teachers with strong STEM content
knowledge into high-need school districts. After graduation,
Noyce scholars teach two years in a high-need school in exchange
for each year of academic support received (which is usually a
$10,000 stipend).

The CSUS Visit

On August 16, 2011, California State University Stanislaus
(CSUS, in Turlock, California) held a series of professional
development events just before the start of the fall term for its
20 NFS-supported future science teachers (the "Robert Noyce Scholar
Summer Academy"). This academy was hosted by CSUS Prof. Viji
Sundar, who since 1995 has led the High School Mathematics Access
Program (HiMap), a tutoring and outreach effort in math for local
precollege students. In one academy session, I had the privilege
introducing these CSUS Noyce scholars to classroom-relevant
technical writing techniques.

Joining me was Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's
(LLNL) external relations officer, Nadine R. Horner. She put
our 2-hour workshop in context by pointing out the role of
effective technical communication in the professional life of
LLNL scientists and engineers. To lead a project one must
explain its technical goals to sponsors and managers. To get
a patent one must explain one's technical success to attorneys.
To mentor junior colleagues one must often explain new and
difficult concepts or procedures.

The Key Workshop Topics

This Noyce workshop followed the pattern of other, similar
sessions held for (other) teacher interns at LLNL. In these
workshops I always introduce technical communication to science
students (or, as here, to future science teachers) by alerting
them to several key themes:

* The uniqueness of nonfiction nonnarrative text--
These two features together distinguish technical
writing from what students usually see (or practice)
in English classes.
[For details, follow the Technical Writing link at
www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html ]

* The importance of usablity--
This is the special real-world test for technical
writing success, based on empirical research by
psychologists, linguists, and engineers.
[For details, follow the Usability link at
www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html ]

* The pedagogical benefits of cognitive apprenticeship--
This is the reliable way to build technical writing
skills in the science classroom, integrated with
other activities, especially for underperforming
students.
[For details, follow the Cognitive Apprenticeship link at
www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html ]

Since the 20 CSUS Noyce scholars did not have their own
classes yet to practice with, their workshop ended with a focus
on one special application of effective technical communication
principles that these students COULD apply immediately: poster
design.

The Future

The motto of Prof. Sundar's Noyce program is "from the
[San Joaquin] valley to the valley." Most of her future teachers
were previously students in local (often rural) schools, and they
aspire to return to those schools with their college degrees in
hand. So introducing them to professional technical-writing
issues and techniques in classroom-relevant ways is especially
appropriate for this mid-degree summer academy. What they learned
will amplify their own success as science majors. And they can
share these practical communication insights with their future
middle- and high-school students right from the start of their
teaching careers. That in turn will amplify the science and
engineering success of another generation--just what Noyce
scholars are supposed to do.

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