New Assignments in the Incubator

Twelve Wynadotte bantam eggs in an incubator, 6 larger white eggs on the left and 6 smaller partridge colored on the rightThis fall, I am designing new assignments for the  Technical Writing courses that I teach. During the coming weeks, I will share the different assignments and activities with you all. The first step in my process was to determine these basic kinds of assignments I would ask students to create:

  • Correspondence (to include letters, memos, and email)
  • Technical Description
  • User Documents (or Instructions)
  • Short Proposal
  • White Paper (a report for non-experts)
  • Progress Report
  • Poster Presentation

My next goal was to create an overarching theme for the assignments. In addition to unifying the assignments, the theme allows students to become familiar with one writing scenario that they work with during the entire term. This strategy enables students to jump into writing more quickly, rather than spending time figuring out the background situation for each assignment first. Naturally, there are still rhetorical parameters for students to analyze for each activity, but the information from one assignment helps them determine the details of the next.

For the theme to work, it must support all of the assignments I had planned for students from a range of backgrounds. Students in the course are studying areas such as engineering, computer science, forestry, wildlife conservation, dairy science, and building construction. I needed to find a way that all these different careers would interact and write similar kinds of documents.

My solution was a business incubator that would bring together all these students to help them launch a new business. Not every student plans to go out into the world to create a new business; but the scenario is familiar enough that they are able to play along and imagine how they would work in the situation.

In my posts for the coming weeks, I will share the different assignments and how they relate to the theme. This week, I want to share the basic details for the theme and activities that the class will focus on this term. One local parameter that you need to know about is the Virginia Tech motto Ut Prosim, which translates to “That I may serve.” This motto drives a lot of service projects and outreach at Virginia Tech, so it was a natural addition to the incubator scenario. Students are very familiar with the motto, so I do not need to explain it in the course documents. Here is the Writing Projects Overview, which explains the overarching writing project theme to students:

In this course, you will write a series of connected projects that you will submit in two batches (Portfolio 1 and Portfolio 2). As explained in the Grading Policies and Standards, these portfolios are collections of the original writing that you do in the course, such as memos and reports. As we begin on these projects, I want to explain how the projects are connected. The full details on these projects will be included in the relevant Canvas modules.

What goes into the two Portfolios?

Portfolio 1 will consist of four shorter pieces:

  • Info Sheet
  • Correspondence Project
  • Technical Description
  • User Documents

Portfolio 2 will focus on research-based documents, which will be a bit longer and/or more complex:

  • Short Proposal
  • White Paper
  • Progress Report
  • Poster Presentation

So how do the projects connect?

All of the projects will relate to your membership in a fictional business incubator, the Ut Prosim Incubator. The projects you will complete for your portfolios will be documents that you create as a member of this incubator. You will create a business and then write the pieces for your portfolio from the perspective as a starting business owner. You will collaborate with other members of the incubator and contribute materials to the endeavors that the incubator undertakes.

What is a business incubator?

According to “Incubating Success. Incubation Best Practices That Lead to Successful New Ventures” (2011), business incubators are “designed to accelerate the successful development of entrepreneurial companies through an array of business support resources and services, developed or orchestrated by incubator management, and offered both in the incubator and through its network of contacts” (15).

There is much more to what an incubator does and how it works, but for our purposes you just need to understand that it is a place the provides support to help beginning companies succeed.

So what will companies in this incubator do?

Naturally, starting a company is a complex endeavor that involves many decisions, specific legal and financial work, and a significant amount of planning. For this class, we will assume that most of that work is already done. We will generally assume that your company is happily chugging along, doing whatever it is that your company does. That might be making a product, providing a service, researching innovations, and so forth.

You will define the work that your company does, but beyond that you will not need to worry about that part of the scenario. You will focus more on creating some technical writing documents that relate to the company you create.

What makes the Ut Prosim Incubator special?

Our make-believe incubator was founded by some well-established and successful Virginia Tech graduates who wanted to give back to younger graduates by helping them get started in the business world. They have created a program that supports any kind of company with the one requirement that the company participates in the special projects that the Incubator undertakes as a whole.

These special projects relate to the mission of the Ut Prosim Incubator to reach out and work in ways that support others. The founders of the incubator have extended the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (“that I may serve”) to their own mission and motto, “that I may serve through my business.” To clarify, the incubator asks that member companies participate in programs that support causes like sustainability, environmental stewardship, mentorship of young entrepreneurs, and public outreach and education.

How do the writing projects relate to the Ut Prosim Incubator?

Project Short Description
Info Sheet You will create a short information sheet that introduces your company to others in the incubator. There will be a specific list of information to provide, including your company name, what it does, and your company’s typical customers.
Correspondence Project You will create guidelines that your employees will use as they communicate with others inside and outside the company. The goal is to ensure that your company’s letters, memos, and emails have a uniform appearance and style.
Technical Description

You will write a technical description related to your field (such as a tool that is typically used or a process that is part of your industry). The description will be part of a diversity initiative to interest local students in STEM careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The description will relate to a task that local middle and high school students will complete as they shadow someone in your company.

User Documents

You will also write the user document that students will use in the diversity initiative described above. You will provide step-by-step details on how to complete a simple and appropriate task that will help local students learn more about what someone in your career does.
Short Proposal You will write a short research proposal that presents the topic you will explore for your white paper. Your proposal should explain not only what the topic is but how it relates to the incubator goal of public outreach and education.
White Paper

You will write an informational report for non-experts that presents details on a specific issue related to your company and the work that it does. Your white paper will tie directly to the incubator goal of public outreach and education. Specifically, the incubator founders want to provide a library of documents that inform readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

Progress Report You will write a progress report that updates incubator staff on the work you have done on your white paper.

Poster Presentation

You will design a poster presentation, based on the details in your white paper, that will be part of a poster session that the incubator sponsors for the local community. Like the white paper, the presentation will focus on the incubator goal of public outreach and education. As an extension, additional investors and clients also attend the session, so you have the potential to make critical connections for your business.

So that’s the overarching plan for the term. Everything is in progress, but I’m not far enough along yet to have any feedback from students. I will share more when I do, and next week, I will share the first assignment that asks them to write a memo with the basic details about their companies. In the meantime, if you have any feedback or questions about the course, please leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

[Photo: Incubator-9128 by graibeard on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license]

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

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