Course Meeting Times

Seminars: 1 session / week, 1.5 hours / session

Experimental Study Group

This section of the course was taught as part of MIT's Experimental Study Group (ESG). In contrast to the set structure of the regular curriculum, ESG's flexibility allows students to go at their own pace whenever possible and to organize their schedules to suit their needs. ESG's small classes allow students to interact more often with faculty and fellow students than is typical in larger classes, and to experiment with novel ways of learning the material.


This course has no prerequisites and is open to all MIT students. The subject is normally required for majors in science writing.

Course Description

This subject is designed to improve communication ability and communication habits. Additional improvement is expected in students' attitude towards writing and oral presentations; as the semester progresses, students should feel confident of their ability to write, present, and work in teams. Satisfactory performance in 21W.732 indicates a mastery of communication skills sufficient for success at communication tasks required in MIT classes.

The ESG section of 21W.732 introduces writing, graphics, meetings, oral presentation, collaboration, and design as tools for product development. The communication instruction is embedded in design projects that require students to work in teams to conceive, design, prototype, and evaluate energy related products. The communication instruction focuses on the communication tasks that are integral to this design process, ranging across design notebooks, e-mail communications, informal oral presentations, meeting etiquette, literature searches, white papers, reports, and formal presentations In addition to the assignments specific to product development, a few assignments, especially reading and reflection, will address the cultural situation of engineers and engineering in the world at large.

Expect to devote six hours of "scheduled" time per week (including both writing and design) to 21W.732; four of these hours will be class time, and two of these hours will be "non- class" time that can be used for team meetings, conferences, and project work.

There is NO final exam in 21W.732.


No text is required for this course. We encourage students to own and cherish a copy of their favorite style guide. Additionally, style and grammar help is available on the World Wide Web. For example, The Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing is a handy reference.

Teaching Approach

  • Communication is both a process and a deliverable. Students will examine both the results of communication (e.g. text and presentations) and the recipes for producing such results. Five process/product pairs are emphasized: writing/graphics/presentation; reading; meetings; collaboration; and design. View the 21W.732 Processes Summary. (PDF)
  • Communication improves with practice. There is no other way. Students will practice communication by communicating as necessitated by the product design process. Feedback, from both peers and instructors, on this communication produces better communication.
  • Communication is a collaborative activity, a collaboration between the communicator and the audience. Both expect cooperation from the other. Without this cooperation, nothing is communicated. Communication can also be a collaboration among team members working together on a common task. Students will collaborate often to improve their habits as communicators.
  • Writing and speaking are complimentary skills.
  • To write the write, you need to read the read; to talk the talk, you need to listen.
  • Communicators put more time and effort into communicating when subject matter is near and dear.

Almost all work in 21W.732 is based on the Peer-Review Evaluation Process (This resource may not render correctly in a screen reader.PDF)design cycle, whereby individual thought develops into a collaborative project. This cycle applies to both the communication work and the product design. For more info concerning this design cycle, see: Graham, M., A. Slocum, and R. Moreno Sanchez. "Teaching High School Students and College Freshmen Product Development by Deterministic Design with PREP." Journal of Mechanical Design 129 (July 2007): 677.


Written assignments cover a range of lengths (1-10 pages), genres, and degrees of formality. Expect assignments to be completed in installments. By the third week, all written assignments are to be submitted by posting them on your Web site.

Reading assignments: Expect to comment briefly on all reading assignments in your notebook and to discuss the reading in an intelligible and intelligent manner.

Design Notebook: The design notebook is a kernel from which ideas grow; tend it accordingly. Become accustomed to documenting your ideas in this book, which is characterized by sketches, lists, informal writing, jotting, pasted printouts, and chicken scratching. Use the notebook to respond to the reading assignments. Early in the semester, notebook entries will be suggested; do not limit yourself to the suggested topics. Notebooks will be reviewed at intervals during the semester.

Assessment of Communication

You will receive suggestions and constructive criticism of your writing in the form of:

  • written response from your peers
  • in-class response from instructors and peers during workshops
  • meta-commentary on the responses from your instructors
  • written and oral comments from your instructors


One aim of this subject is to effect a shift from an emphasis on "grades" to an emphasis on collaboration and peer feedback.

At some level your grade is a measure of your instructors subjective impression of your work. To provide an idea of what aspects of your work might contribute to this impression, expect that your written work will account for half your final grade; written assignments will count roughly proportional to their page length and degree of formality. Both the final text and the manner in which it has been produced will be evaluated. The remainder of the grade will be derived from oral presentations, collaborative work, and class participation. Oral presentations grading is digital; deliver and full credit will be delivered; fail to deliver and credit will fail to be delivered. A component of the collaborative work grade will be determined by your colleagues. Perennial tardiness and loud snoring during class are both likely to tarnish the impression you make on your instructors and colleagues.

Come to class; work with your colleagues; strive; write lots and prosper.

Collaborative Work

Team work is central to functioning of this class (and any modern engineering endeavor), so time will be devoted to the dynamics of team formation during the early part of the semester. So, during the first weeks of class, satisfy yourself that you'll be able to work together on a team with the other students in this class. And, in the first weeks of team work, identify problems promptly, document them, bring them to the attention of your team member and your instructors, and diffuse them using the best diplomatic practices available to you.