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Technical Writing: Art/STEM Integration Meets Text Design

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

Technical Writing: Art/STEM Integration Meets Text Design

The STEAM Challenge

Proposals to expand STEM into STEAM--to somehow add "art" to the
usual science/engineering/math mix--are fairly common but often very
vague.  Do they embody a clever insight or just a conceptual confusion?
An instructor team at the College of Education, Ireland (COEI), recently
set out to carefully, thoughtfully integrate "art" into science-
teacher professional development...and ended up embracing an engineering
practice instead [Anne Marie Morrin and Maeve Liston, "Engaging
children with authentic STEAM learning," Connected Science Learning,
Oct-Dec 2020, vol.2, no.4, www.nsta.org/connected-science-learnning ].

The Possibilities

Art/STEM integration might involve broad cultural trends, such as the
"importance of aesthetics [for]...heightening audience engagement,
arousing emotion, enhancing credibility..." [Charles Kostelnick, "The
Art of Visual Design," Technical Communication, Nov. 2020, vol. 67,
no. 4, www.stc.org/techcomm/2020/10/28, p. 1 ].  Alternatively, it
might focus on exposing science teachers and students to specific visual
techniques, such as "parallelism, balance, color, and detail" (p. 2).
Art critic Will Gompertz even wrote a book called Think Like An Artist
(New York: Abrams Image, 2016).  Might it contain relevant art moves
to borrow?

The Design Strategy

In their attempt to seriously pursue art/STEM integration, the COEI
instructors instead focused on the term 'design', which at least
superficially art and science seem to share.   

Etymologically, 'design' means 'to mark out, to trace.'  At first
applied to map making and surveying, it gradually generalized to the
kind of planning diagrams that appear in Leonardo DaVinci's notebooks,
dating back to 1500.  

Since the COEI group sought thoughtful, college-level strategies
that they could have future science teachers practice, they were
pleased to come upon (on Google?) the phrase 'design thinking' and
they were completely enthused to discover that 'design thinking' was
the proud motto of a college at Stanford University, the Hasso-
Plattner School of Design (the "d.school").  

This font of "design thinking" is not an aesthetics institute or
art school, however, but a college of engineering!  The design
thinking approach that COEI borrowed from Hasso-Plattner and on
which they carefully, overtly coached their students, is the well-
known pattern

     define--brainstorm--prototype--test--refine

that most engineering schools teach their future engineers (and
some now even feature on their outreach websites for middle-
school NGSS engineering students).  Indeed, COEI had their own
enrollees practice this "art" injection on a series of fairly
typical engineering-for-school activities, such as figuring out
how several students could all see the same cell-phone camera image
(of some sample) at the same time (Morrin and Liston, Table 1).

Technical Writing as Design

So this way to inject art into STEM turns out to be fake, or at
least based on a confusion about which realm "design" lives in.
Artists almost never discuss art in terms of design (never
mentioned that I could find in Gompertz's book, for example)
because art is not made to be "used" by its audience in the way
all engineering projects are used.  

Ironically, technical writing is almost always made to be used
--by real people trying to perform serious tasks--but many students
mistake it for a literary project, a work of art without "users"
at all.  So as writers, students often become intimidated by what
they wrongly perceive as artistic demands for text quality, when
the real demands are mostly engineering constraints imposed by
people who want to USE what they read.  As human-factors expert
Janice Redish summarizes:

    You communicate successfully only when the
    people who read your communication
    (1) can FIND what they need,
    (2) UNDERSTAND what they find, and
    (3) ACT appropriately based on their
    understanding (published interview, 2015).

Students who "design" their text to meet such user constraints
have a proven, real-world path forward (iterative refinement of
an engineering prototype, their draft) that whose who see writing
only as an art project overlook.  Thus text engineering actually
achieves the goal to which STEM+ART aspires, offering students
an effective way to build literacy skills that are practical and
helpful as well as creative.

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See
http://writeprofessionally.org/techlit/handbooktoc

Want more details on writing as text engineering?  See  
http://writeprofessionally.org/techlit/text-engineering ]

 

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