Course 20 launches BE-specific writing lab

Separate from MIT Writing Center, BE Writing Lab uses peer fellows to teach

Biological Engineering students looking to improve their writing now have a new resource: the BE Writing Lab in 56-205. The center, which opened last month, is geared towards helping Course 20 students with lab reports, UROP proposals, grad school applications, and more.

The Writing Lab is part of a push by Course 20 to improve its students’ writing and communication skills. Walk-in hours are from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and students are encourage to make an appointment with one of the 10 undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc writing fellows, who also each hold at least four office hours every week. Interested sophomores can be assigned a fellow as a mentor for the year to help them develop their skills. 76 percent of declared Course 20 sophomores are now using the Writing Lab for help with their classes, said Goldstein, and 35 students have visited the lab in the first month of operation.

MIT has a Writing Center in Building 12 available to all students. So why does Course 20 have its own?

Professor Douglas A. Lauffenburger, Course 20 department head, cites the disappointing statistics on the senior exit survey over the past few years: 47 percent of students felt that their communication didn’t improve at all throughout MIT.

“The most significant shortcoming from the students’ point of view seemed to be that even though there was an emphasis on communication, they didn’t feel like they were getting enough help in learning how to do it better,” said Lauffenburger.

A task force was formed to combat the problem, and instructor/writing coordinator Jaime Goldstein was brought onto the team in November. Goldstein worked extensively with Course 20’s Eric J. Alm and Agnieszka N. Stachowiak to bring the vision for the Writing Lab together. The BE Writing Lab is not meant to replace the writing center, but to bring in specialized resource for Course 20.

“The MIT writing program is terrific — they just don’t have enough bandwidth,” said Lauffenburger, explaining that they don’t have “enough personnel and time.”

Peer mentorship

One of the differences between the MIT Writing Center and the Course 20 Writing Lab is the peer fellows.

Alm and Stachowiak noticed that so much learning at MIT is “sideways,” said Lauffenburger, “Peer to peer.”

The goal was to train a handful of students to become “exceptional communicators,” said Goldstein. Then, the “trickle down effect could have the whole department improve because of a core group of extraordinary students.”

“I believe in the effort that [the department] is putting in,” said John P. Casey G, one of the fellows. “We should be helping develop better writers alongside mathematicians and engineers.”

The writing fellows were recruited through word of mouth and through the IAP class 20.300 (Advanced Workshop in Biological Engineering Communication). Fellows had to apply, were accepted, and then put through a full day’s training of the type of writing they would see, including scientific communication. The center is collaborating with the Careers Office in order to fully support premed applicants from Course 20. Goldstein expects the program to become more competitive within the next few years, and hopes to make the IAP class a prerequisite.

Assessing progress

The department will assess the Writing Lab’s growth through surveys and other types of feedback.

“If there really is conviction that [students] are becoming better,” said Lauffenburger, “We’d want to expand the program so that everyone can be accommodated. … We don’t want to have its bandwidth limited.”

“Assessing writing labs is a really complicated thing,” said Goldstein, who has been working with the Teaching and Learning Lab while setting up this project, and plans to send surveys to members of the department to get feedback as the lab grows.

Plans for other departments

Course 20 is the first department to offer a specialized writing center, and time will tell if others will follow its lead.

“A number of department heads requested to stay updated on how it goes on,” said Lauffenburger, mentioning that he’s brought up the Writing Lab at the School of Engineering department head meetings.

More information about the Writing Lab can be found online at their website