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Technical Writing Class Serves Local School During COVID

by Donna Branyon, Department of English

If asked to define technical writing, one might mention rocket science, brain surgery, computer programing, or biochemical crystallography. However, all occupations and fields of study — not just those associated with science and industry — utilize technical writing.

students from Walker Elementary
Students from Walker Elementary School

On the first day of English 319 (technical writing) in spring 2020, our class discussed a definition of technical writing that focuses on discipline-specific conventions, language, expectations, formats, and processes. In other words, technical communications vary between disciplines. No comprehensive rulebook or universal model exists. Instead, EN 319 students were encouraged to utilize a great deal of creativity, imagination, and critical thinking while following general tech writing guidelines.

In order to provide students with real-world experiences, while umbrellaed within the academy, I design all of my EN 319 assignments to mimic possible work scenarios. During a normal semester, students will compose resumes, cover letters, personal statements, professional websites, pitch sites, business letters, memos, feasibility reports, and business proposals. However, spring 2020 could never be described as normal. In fact, one project that we started during the spring 2020 semester carried over to spring 2021.

At the beginning of spring 2020, our technical writing class started a collaborative outreach project. We partnered with a local machine shop, machine tool technology students, and computer numerical control students to help a local Title 1 elementary school. Traditionally, Walker Elementary has hosted a variety of fundraising events to offset supply costs for many at-risk students. After studying visual rhetoric, my technical writing students conducted a great deal of research and designed items for fundraising for the elementary school.

Our class worked in small groups to design t-shirts, frisbees, flyers, posters, and keychains for the Walker Elementary School and for their small robotics team. As technical writers, we composed business letters, memos, and proposals for our designs. A small group of elementary students voted on their favorite design. Then, our technical writing students communicated with machinists and their students to have the favored design digitized. Thus, our class had the opportunity to compose technical documents for a variety of real-world audiences.

keychain from Walker Elementary School
Keychain designed by Branyon’s students

At this point in our project, the semester took a sharp turn into the desolate Covid-19 territory, and work stopped. By spring 2021, most of our schedules had returned to semi-normal. Walker Elementary no longer needed many of the fundraising items. However, it seemed unprofessional to completely abandon the project. I did not want my technical writers to feel forgotten. The machinists and their students could return to work and build at least one of our items: the keychains.

Within a few weeks, the machinists and their students had created over 1000 plastic keychains, using their new plastic injection machinery and our custom-made steel molds. Each keychain was emblazoned with our designs for Walker Elementary. All of this was done at no cost to our class or the elementary school. The project was merely an altruistic, collaborative, outreach project for worthy school children.

Although the original intent was to provide fundraising items to the elementary school, their returning schedule, after quarantine, did not include fundraising. However, the school did find a purpose for the keychains. Here is an excerpt from the thank you card from the school’s principal:

Thank you for the keychains! They were divided up to the teachers to use as incentives for positive behavior. When the children display positive behavior for a certain amount of time they are rewarded with the keychain. It is a constant reminder of what RAMS are (Respectful, Accountable, Motivated, and Self-Controlled).

The children love the keychains! We love our Rams! Thank you so much for your thoughtfulness and sharing your great product!

Although these real-world-type projects require much more time and energy, they are always so rewarding. My students know that they are not spending time working on arbitrary academic exercises. I am constantly reminding them that real people, with real-time constraints, and real funding issues are depending on their performances. My students take this responsibility seriously. They have the opportunity to compose technical communications to a wide variety of audiences at various points during the manufacturing process. They meet the challenges of adjusting to unforeseen circumstances, and their efforts have tangible results outside of the classroom.