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Development of a Writing Intensive Course for the Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research

Jill R. Hardin
W. Scott Street, IV

The Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research (SSOR) was created in the fall of 2001 as a result of the dissolution of the former Department of Mathematical Sciences. Consequently, SSOR examined its current curriculum to determine how the department can improve service to its majors. One visible gap in existing course offerings was the availability of a course that teaches students to communicate effectively within the disciplines of statistics and operations research. Furthermore, VCU general education requirements call for students to take a course within their major departments that is deemed writing intensive, and SSOR offered no such course. The purpose of this project was to develop a course that equipped students with career enhancing skills while allowing them to satisfy a general education requirement.

Below we identify some specific objectives for the project and detail how we addressed each of them.

  1. Utilize faculty and student input to decide on specific course content.
    Based on prior conversations with SSOR faculty, both formally and informally, we anticipated offering a course that focused on communication in the specific contexts of statistics and operations research. In order to acquire additional input, we distributed anonymous written surveys to all SSOR faculty members. Additionally, we distributed surveys in an upper division operations research course. Student surveys included questions about specific writing tasks and asked students if they knew how to complete such a task. Many students expressed concern about their ability to complete such tasks and indicated a desire to learn more about them in a classroom setting. More informally, we have mentioned the course to students in advising sessions, and many of them have expressed enthusiasm at the idea of enhancing communication skills in their own disciplines.

  2. Compile a list of print and electronic resources for instructor and student use.
    In order to identify resources for our students, we have obtained several texts related to professional and technical communication. These will be made available in the departmental library for student use. In addition, Dr. Judith Norback, Director of Workplace and Academic Communication in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is in the process of developing an extensive web-based library of professional communications examples. As the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech includes both operations research and statistics, we believe that much of Dr. Norback's materials will be useful to our students; thus, we are discussing with Dr. Norback the particulars for acquiring access to her system.

  3. Identify industry contacts that can lend credibility to our approach.
    Dr. Hardin was given the opportunity to sit in on a seminar entitled "Logic in Thinking and Writing", given by Mike Figliuolo, a group manager at Capital One. Mr. Figliuolo spent much of his seminar detailing the importance of clearly communicating ideas in the corporate world. He has kindly agreed to be a guest speaker for our course. We believe that his input will lend credibility to the approach we suggest for the course.

  4. Developing assignments that reflect the course objectives.
    Our course has essentially been divided into four segments. These segments are listed below, along with brief descriptions and sample assignment ideas.

    a. Career Writing - learning to tailor résumés, curriculum vitae, and cover letters to reflect the technical skills and expertise of a job candidate.

    Sample Assignment: Given a job posting for a position as a statistician, tailor your cover letter and résumé to highlight your skills as they relate to this posting.

    b. Academic Writing - learning the writing styles and expectations of tasks required for graduate work in operations research and statistics.

    Sample Assignment: Identify a topic for a literature review. Research the topic, write a detailed summary of your findings, and present your results to the class.

    c. Professional Writing - learning how to communicate professionally, not only with other technical personnel, but with non-technical personnel as well.

    Sample Assignment: Write a technical report based on the results for a given case study. Include an executive summary that will outline your results for a non-technical reader.

    d. Popular Writing - learning to accurately communicate technical information to the general public.

    Sample Assignment: Given a misleading newspaper article about the results of a scientific study, write a letter to the editor explaining why the article is misleading and supplying suggestions for correction.

  5. Develop a course that will be accepted by both the University Undergraduate Curriculum Committee and the Writing Intensive Committee.
    In order for our students to be able to use this course to fulfill general education requirements, it must be approved as a course and it must be given writing intensive status. Materials will be submitted to both committees during the fall semester for approval. We will offer the course for the first time in Spring 2003.

Development of a writing intensive course as described is significant not only as it fills a departmental need for a writing intensive course but also as it addresses an educational and professional need of SSOR majors. Whether their future endeavors lie in industry or in academia, we anticipate that this course will leave our students better prepared for career success through the refinement of their writing and speaking skills. Perhaps most importantly, we expect that this course will convince students of the value of becoming better communicators, inspiring them to work to enhance those skills. The mere existence of such a course as a part of the SSOR curriculum emphasizes the importance the department places on practices of effective communication. Furthermore, the impact need not be limited to SSOR students; supplemental materials and writing samples collected throughout development and instruction of this writing intensive course can be made widely available so that students within the major and beyond may benefit. It is our hope that students in related disciplines will see the value of learning to communicate technical information and that they too will find our course valuable.

The CTE Small Grants Program has made it possible for us to participate very actively in the structuring of SSOR curriculum. We have been enlightened while navigating the differences in the disciplines of Statistics and Operations Research and have woven a course from their similarities. Exploring interaction with industry professionals for the course has also led to contacts that might not otherwise have been made, and these contacts may lead to more professional opportunities in the future.

We have presented our plans for the new writing intensive course to the Department of Biostatistics, whose faculty members and students have been quite helpful and very interested. Dr. Hardin will also present a talk about this course at the Fall 2002 meeting of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) in San Jose, CA. We intend to investigate opportunities for publishing papers about the course in leading operations research and statistics education journals.

While every course should ideally involve some attention to writing, time is insufficient to thoroughly address it in every course in a specific scientific discipline. Including this course in the SSOR curriculum and focusing on improvement of student communication skills paves the way for instructors in upper level courses to refine those skills in the limited time they have available to spend on writing. By urging students to take the course in the spring semester of their third year, they will be better prepared to write project reports and presentations for their other upper level classes; thus allowing other faculty members to focus more on mastery of course content than on structure and form of communicative efforts.

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