Making arguments with equations, figures, and images: Writing in STEM

Equations as arguments.

WAC@Illinois

by Alexandra Cavallaro and Andrea Olinger

“Do problem sets count as writing?”

This was the question we asked Michael Loui, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). His answer: a resounding yes. “It is actually a form of writing,” he said, “with diagrams and equations and all of that.”

Although students in his ECE classes might not be writing whole paragraphs in response to their homework problems, each solution needs to set up a chain of reasoning, to weave together words, symbols, and diagrams to make an argument. The kind of writing we see in problem sets shows up in the many different kinds of writing engineers do, such as technical specifications and documentation. Critically, this kind of writing also gives students opportunities to make their thinking and learning visible—something not possible from automatically graded multiple-choice homework.

One of Michael’s favorite problems, which he created for an introductory engineering…

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