A Different Kind of Writing Class

Elisabeth Arnold Weiss’s Writing 340 for Engineers includes a hands-on consulting project that leverages engineering to solve real-world problems


Andrew Prajogi, B.S. EE ’17, never much cared for English classes. The 22-year-old Northrop Grumman engineer, now studying for his master’s degree in cybersecurity at USC Viterbi, says he found them dull and “too divorced from reality.”

But Writing 340 for Engineers was different. Taught by senior lecturer Elisabeth Arnold Weiss, her advanced writing class requires students to produce a group report that leverages engineering for social good, offering an invaluable real-world experience.

In spring 2017, Prajogi’s four-member team developed a study calling for the creation of an after-school robotics program at the Accelerated Charter Elementary School (ACES) in South Los Angeles. The report, prepared with input from ACES teachers and students, envisioned a three-year curriculum for fourth, fifth and sixth graders that would teach coding and robotics in a fun way — and spark interest in STEM and STEM-related careers among the school’s mostly low-income, Latino students.

So compelling were the team’s recommendations that ACES incorporated many of them into its newly minted robotics program.

“The best part of this project was that it was hands-on,” Prajogi said. “I hate writing classes, but Professor Weiss’s was more inspiring and made me work harder. Why? Because the idea of making a difference was staggering.”

Weiss decided to partner with ACES in 2010 because she thought her efforts could make a big difference there. The school’s impressive academic record notwithstanding, it was “struggling to acquire technological resources, facilities, space utilization, traffic safety and integration with the community,” she said. “Because all of these areas could be improved through engineering, I felt the potential for our impact was great.”

Since then, Weiss’s Writing 340 students have come up with creative ways to improve academics, sustainability and even school spirit. They devised a pickup and drop-off system that increased traffic safety and prompted the city to add signage and a crosswalk at the school’s former campus. A report on sustainability inspired the creation of an edible garden that doubles as a science lab at its new $35 million facility. Even the school’s eagle mascot and blue-and-gold color scheme were first suggested in a 340 report.

“These projects provide our students with an education experience that is innovative, interesting and unique,” Weiss said.

In the nearly 20-year history of the writing course for engineers, USC Viterbi students have worked with more than 100 nonprofits, ranging from local schools to programs dedicated to helping for HIV/AIDS orphans in Mozambique, according to Steve Bucher, director of the Engineering Writing Program. Such hands-on experiences, he said, are unique in an engineering writing program and consistent with USC Viterbi’s emphasis on community outreach. What’s more, national accreditors have singled out the writing program for excellence.

“It’s one thing to write a report and receive a grade,” Bucher said. “It’s another to have the report go beyond the classroom and have an NGO or nonprofit take it seriously and implement some or all of it.”

In part because of Weiss and her students’ efforts, ACES is now included in USC’s Science Outreach program and the Joint Education Project’s computer science tutoring pool.

The collaboration has done more than just help improve the elementary school, ACES Principal Susan Raudry said. With USC Viterbi students coming to the school for research and ACES students attending project presentations at Troy, “this gets our kids excited about going to college, especially USC. It gives them exposure and shows them that higher education is attainable,” she said.