Leonardo da Vinci as a WAC-ish Example for STEM Professors and Students to Consider

Klawe, Maria. “Look What Happens When STEM Professors Teach Writing.” Forbes, 30 April 2014, https://www.forbes.com/sites/mariaklawe/2014/04/30/why-stem-professors-can-teach-anything-even-writing/#7483653930a0 . Accessed February 2019.


Paredes, Ingrid. “Implementing Writing-to-Learn Approaches in STEM.” Inside Higher Ed, 11 Sept. 2018, https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/implementing-writing-learn-approaches-stem . Accessed February 2019.


Reynolds, Julie A. et al. “Writing-to-Learn in Undergraduate Science Education: A Community-based, Conceptually Driven Approach.” CBE Life Sciences Education, vol. 11, no. 1, 2012: 17-25, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3292059/ . Accessed February 2019.


Smelser, Ron E. “How to Build Better Engineers: A Practical Approach to the Mechanics of Text.” The Quarterly (National Writing Project), vol. 23, no. 4, 2001: 32-35, https://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/241 . Accessed February 2019.


The above four articles which have rather recent publication dates should convince readers that writing helps STEM students to learn and then to communicate to others what they have learned.  Yet writing as an important tool in the hard sciences is not something new.  For humanists of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries on the Italian peninsula and in France, the sciences and the arts were not viewed in as divided a light as they are today at some universities.  Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is well-known for painting The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa, but he also worked on making developments in a wide variety of subjects such as engineering, geology, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, botany, and anatomy.  The American Society of Mechanical Engineers website has a page about Da Vinci.  The Engineering and Technology Magazine (of The Institution of Engineering and Technology) has a 2016 article about Da Vinci, and a 2010 article appears in the journal Leadership and Management in Engineering.  It would not be difficult to keep listing more modern-day sources, but returning to Da Vinci himself it is known that part of his work for the Duke of Milan included figuring out how to develop weapons and build war vehicles.  A constant that appears in how Da Vinci approached exploring all of these subjects and more is that he wrote about them.  No, he was not writing in order to pass university courses or to obtain a professorship.  Writing was just part of the process of how he acquainted himself with subjects.  He noted down his observations of certain objects in nature; he proposed that certain things operate in certain ways; he explained how inventions of his might work.  Observe, propose, explain—all in writing.  One need not be a genius in order to do this.  Mere mortals can find comfort in knowing that Da Vinci was not always correct in his statements about the topics that he was exploring, and one should not imagine that his notebooks were neat.  He jumped from topic to topic in his notebooks, as university students today might do in a low-stakes journal assignment for a STEM course.  Jean Paul Richter (1847–1937) who translated Da Vinci’s notebooks into English (1883) notes in the Preface:

Leonardo’s literary labours in various departments both of Art and of Science were those essentially of an enquirer, hence the analytical method is that which he employs in arguing out his investigations and dissertations. The vast structure of his scientific theories is consequently built up of numerous separate researches, and it is much to be lamented that he should never have collated and arranged them. His love for detailed research—as it seems to me—was the reason that in almost all the Manuscripts, the different paragraphs appear to us to be in utter confusion; on one and the same page, observations on the most dissimilar subjects follow each other without any connection. A page, for instance, will begin with some principles of astronomy, or the motion of the earth; then come the laws of sound, and finally some precepts as to colour. Another page will begin with his investigations on the structure of the intestines, and end with philosophical remarks as to the relations of poetry to painting; and so forth.



References & Suggested Reading


Birkett, Dea. “Leonardo da Vinci: artist and engineer.” The Engineering and Technology Magazine, 18 Jan. 2016, https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2016/01/leonardo-da-vinci-artist-and-engineer/ . Accessed February 2019.


“Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds.” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/codex/ . Accessed February 2019.


Povoledo, Elisabetta. “In Leonardo da Vinci’s Scientific Notebook, the Mind of a Genius at Work.” The New York Times, 30 Oct. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/30/arts/leonardo-da-vinci-codex-leicester-uffizi.html . Accessed February 2019.


Richter, Jean Paul. The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Volume 1. London: Low, 1883.


Sniderman, Debbie. “Leonardo Da Vinci .” The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, April 2012, https://www.asme.org/engineering-topics/articles/history-of-mechanical-engineering/leonardo-da-vinci . Accessed February 2019.


“The Leonardo Notebook (Highlights).” The British Library, http://www.bl.uk/turning-the-pages/?id=cb4c06b9-02f4-49af-80ce-540836464a46&type=book . Accessed February 2019.


“Using Your Notebook (by Mark Henderson, ASU Polytech Engineering).” Engineering ASU Colors, Arizona State University, https://sites.google.com/a/asu.edu/engineering/using-your-notebook . Accessed February 2019.


“Water as Microscope of Nature—Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester.” Museo Galileo, https://mostre.museogalileo.it/codiceleicester/en/codex . Accessed February 2019.


Weingardt, Richard G. “Leonardo da Vinci.” Leadership and Management in Engineering, vol. 10, no. 1, 2010, https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)LM.1943-5630.0000040. Accessed February 2019.


Reading for Enjoyment Helps to Improve Writing

Dear STEM professors who are disappointed by the quality of English grammar in your students’ written work:


Is the academic style of writing found in some of the STEM articles that you assign inspiring or a bit dry?  Are there novels or short stories or plays in English that you love to read?  Would it be outlandish or radical for you to share a page from any of those novels or short stories or plays with your students on a weekly basis in Blackboard (or any other online platform so as not to use up class time)?  Would you consider making these readings voluntary and therefore stress-free?  Or would it be possible to create an extra credit activity out of such readings?  Do you want to interject at this point to ask what on earth might possibly link narrative writing or “creative writing” to expository writing and your STEM field?  Is it possible that reading enjoyable literary texts more often in the target language helps students get used to hearing and seeing what is considered to be standard grammar?  Isn’t absorbing grammar without even knowing it painless magic?  Would it then be easier for students to produce more well-written sentences?  Have you ever been unsure of whether a sentence should go this way or that grammatically, and then would say each version out loud a few times, decide to go with the version that sounds better, and end up being correct?  Why did you do all of that and not go to a dry book of grammar rules?  Are you now thinking that if you choose one of your favorite passages from Faulkner, then that might make things worse for your students?  Is that thought an attempt to get out of curating a list for your students?  Surely you must have some other passages in mind to use, yes?  Is it truly only the job of the English Comp professor to improve student writing?  Can it be that students need to keep reading good material beyond that semester of English Comp?  Is it fair for STEM professors to grumble about grammar if they don’t inspire their students with a decent number of good examples?  And doesn’t WAC pedagogy say that grammar is a lower order concern?



A WAC Fellow who is trying to help


P.S.—Would it be beneficial for professors outside of the STEM fields to read all of the above?

Informal Writing Assignments

Sketch for a one-act play



Professor Smith

Jean-Paul, student

Marianne, student


Professor Smith hands back a writing assignment to students.  Jean-Paul raises his hand.


Professor Smith: Jean-Paul, you have a question?

Jean-Paul: Professor, you forgot to give me a grade for my work.

Marianne (frowning): I didn’t get a grade either.

Professor Smith: Are the comments that I wrote in response to your work clear or helpful?  Or fair?

Jean-Paul: Um, wait a second—let me see . . . .  Yes, they are—kind of, sort of—but . . .

Professor Smith: How important are grades that might make you feel stressed or too elated?

Jean-Paul or Marianne: ___________________________________ .



Drafting the above sketch is how I was able to find a way into writing this blog entry.  How much writing and deleting did I do before settling on that opening?  A fair amount.  Did anyone grade me on those attempts to talk about the importance of informal writing assignments?  Of course not.  Why not extend some version of this approach to college students as way to help them step into unfamiliar course content?  Informal writing assignments that need not be graded redirect students to truer learning.  It is unsettling to see students automatically search for a grade on the page when they get back their work, skimming through the professor’s comments or even skipping over them in the search.  Yes, I give ungraded writing assignments.  An early concern was the following: “If I tell my students that they will not be graded for a writing assignment, would they still be serious about engaging with the topic?”  I discovered the answer to be yes—students submitted good work overall.  In fact, the learning atmosphere became less stressful.  Ungraded writing assignments can also make students rethink why they are taking classes: am I here just for a grade, or do I really want to understand the course content?


Informal writing assignments is but one of the topics that will be discussed at the upcoming faculty workshop “Effective Assignment Design” on Thursday, September 27, 2018 in room N704 from 1pm to 2pm.

Stoking the Student’s Desire to Write

An interesting case that I come across often when teaching introductory French courses is the student who has so far not been enthusiastic about mastering French grammar rules but becomes animated all of a sudden when I give the class a writing assignment such as “Describe the person of your dreams.”  Giggles and more would ensue, from so many students.  Stoking the student’s desire to express himself/herself is an important element in the process of helping students to improve their writing.  Writing becomes something that they want to work on instead of something that they might see as a burden.  Feeling an emotional connection to a writing assignment can drive the student not only to write but to want to improve their writing—the student becomes more open to reviewing a few grammar rules.  The student wants me to be able to picture that dreamy person.  This would be a one-paragraph long in-class writing assignment, and students would be free to benefit from peer review before submitting their work to me.  I tell my students that I am not expecting them to produce masterpieces, but one goal is still to have as few grammatical errors as possible, and so asking a neighbor to look over a few sentences might be helpful.  In this way, students would also feel less isolated in their journey to producing better writing.  That the students get no more than twenty or so minutes to finish their work is an important factor.  Sometimes I imagine a Hephaestus-like creature who must hammer out a few sentences immediately.  This kind of an assignment can help students be less prone to procrastination when it comes time for them to work on a longer writing assignment.  Overthinking what we want to write, endlessly rewriting sentences, and other procrastination-related elements can easily lead to asking for an extension, which is not so bad in the grand scheme of things, unless that leads to the viciousness of never feeling ready to submit any work at all.



If You Are Not Averse to Using More Technology in the Writing Process…

Students can correct some of their written grammatical errors (misspelled words, verb tense, punctuation, wrong-word errors) by reading aloud their drafts, as mentioned in “The Study of Error” (1980) by David Bartholomae (261-262) and in Engaging Ideas (2011) by John C. Bean (75-76).  I wonder if similar results can be obtained (i.e., fewer errors on the page) if a student were to use an iPhone, laptop, or computer to record his/her thoughts (arguments) about the topic of his/her paper and then transcribe those words.  When listening to the recording, it can be strange to hear one’s own voice, but the student can use this unsettling feeling to his/her advantage: view those words as someone else’s argument—this can help the student to be more objective when judging whether or not the argument really works.  And for students who feel stuck but for whatever reason do not take the step to discuss the essay topic with someone, talking out his/her ideas this way can be helpful in clarifying or generating ideas.  Sometimes an idea is formed or nixed when we hear ourselves trying to figure out something out loud.


It’s possible that students would find it annoying to stop the recording every time they are mulling over what to say next (in order to avoid long pauses in the recording and/or to save space in their iPhones, laptops, or computers).  Students might also say that remembering to stop the recording interrupts their chain of thought.  So would not hitting the pause/stop button help push the student to be quicker in coming up with the next statements for the argument in his/her essay draft?  He/she can always give this voluntary pressure a try.


The Good Old-Fashioned Notebook

Scaffolding assignments are very helpful for guiding students toward completing a long essay, but what can students do more independently to keep the momentum going?  Well, the plain old way of carrying around a notebook to jot down ideas shouldn’t be dismissed (a digital notebook would be fine too for those who would prefer that).  The student can even make “diary” types of entries from time to time if necessary: if there are days when the student is coming up against a wall, then he/she can write a few sentences to say that it has been difficult making headway with part X of the essay.  At the very least, a problem has been identified.  You as the professor can use this assignment as a low-stakes one that will not be graded but will be collected once or twice.  Ask your students to spend about a half hour on this activity three or four days per week.  Inspire them by saying that this can help their ideas to marinate and that they might come across a nugget when they look back at what they wrote a week ago.  This assignment has the possibility of making students who procrastinate feel guilty about procrastinating, but that can be viewed in a good way—it might push them to write a few lines eventually!


On a more abstract level, you can tell your students that an essay, coming from the Old French word essai/essay, is more or less “The action or process of trying or testing” (OED) and “A trial, testing, proof; experiment” (OED)—this can help your students feel that it would be okay to write in a messy way at the notebook stage, if they felt at first any pressure to come up with sparklingly great ideas.  If students worry that their notebook entries might wander away from the topic too much, then let them know that part of the trek to a “finished” essay involves trying out different ideas (in fact, it can be argued that no essay is ever truly finished—there is always more to explore).  The student who recognizes how some ideas are wandering a bit at the notebook stage will have more time to wrestle with rewriting them, as opposed to making the discovery when he/she is scrambling to complete an essay near the deadline.  Once the student sees the wandering that is happening in his/her notes from a week ago, then he/she can work on tightening up the argument.  Lastly, it is most likely better to accumulate a mess of notes that can be restructured than to stare at a blank page when the essay deadline is looming.  Of course the above notions of what an essay can be need not be mentioned in class if the subject that you are teaching requires students to write papers using a particularly structured format.  Nonetheless, you can still tweak this notebook assignment in whichever way that you may see fit for your course.



Elements of WAC in Introductory Foreign Language Courses

It’s possible to see WAC elements in introductory foreign language courses. Three-quarters into the semester of a 101-level French course, pair up your students to write a dialogue such as the following: the two speakers discuss how they view certain characters in a French painting from a nearby museum. You, the professor, will have chosen a dozen paintings that are meaty enough to work with, and on the back of each image that you randomly hand out to students it would be good to have background information that the museum provides for that painting. Even if the students end up not having time to visit the museums, the fact that they know that these objects are close by helps to reduce the gap that they may feel between themselves and a culture that is new to them. Back to how this writing assignment can work: each speaker must ask his/her classmate a few questions (to practice the different ways of forming questions), use the negating construction ne…pas to disagree at least twice, and provide a new way of seeing XYZ each time that there is a disagreement. For example: “Non, cet homme n’est pas fatigué !  Il  ______________ !” Creating follow-up questions using the interrogative adverb pourquoi (why) would deepen the dialogue. The students’ explanations for what they see will often be creative, but you can tell your students that if their statements are too silly, then that would most likely invite follow-up questions that they may not be able to answer in French, given that only a few chapters of the textbook have been covered so far. The 101-level students will of course not have enough vocabulary to provide in-depth arguments for their viewpoints, but this kind of dialogue in which each speaker defends his/her way of seeing something differently can move students past William Perry’s “middle stages of multiplicity” (Bean 22) and closer to that point when “a real need for reasoned argument begins to emerge” (Bean 22). Thus, students in introductory level foreign language courses are not merely learning to write. They are not limited to filling themselves with data. Writing a dialogue in which a piece of artwork is interpreted from different angles can be seen as a way of writing to learn. Assigning a dialogue that will be collected at the end of class can also make peace between the idea that learning French should be a more conversational type of activity and the idea that students need to be more conscientious about their writing. That each dialogue is being looked over by two students before they hand it in can help to reduce the number of grammatical errors.


When students see themselves able to write comprehensible albeit short paragraphs and dialogues in a language that they have recently learned, this can serve as a kind of support for them when they become frustrated with writing long papers (in their native or near-native language) for their other courses. If students catch themselves writing convoluted paragraphs for their other courses and can’t seem to find a way out for the time being, then thinking back on the short paragraphs and dialogues that they wrote for their introductory foreign language courses can be a reminder of how they have the ability to write clearly. That memory can be what gives them the push to take another stab at revising their convoluted papers for other courses. Happily remembering those short paragraphs and dialogues can take the edge off the stress momentarily, which is not a small thing.




Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.