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Pioneering a Math-Based Grammar Course for Engineering and Other STEM Majors

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Writing and Communication I

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Brad Jerald Henderson University of California - Davis

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Brad Henderson is a faculty in writing for the University Writing Program (UWP) at University of California, Davis. Henderson holds a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo and a Masters in Professional Writing (MPW) from University of Southern California. Currently focusing his career on engineering communication and professionalism, he has worked as a design engineer and technical education specialist for Parker-Hannifin Aerospace and Hewlett-Packard Inkjet. Henderson was featured in the book—Engineers Write! Thoughts on Writing from Contemporary Literary Engineers by Tom Moran (IEEE Press 2011)—as one of twelve ”literary engineers” writing and publishing creative works in the United States. Henderson’s current project is a book pioneering a new method for teaching engineers workplace writing skills through the lens of math. A Math-Based Writing System for Engineers: Sentence Algebra & Document Algorithms will be published by Springer, New York, 2016/2017.

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Pioneering a Math-Based Grammar Course for Engineering and Other STEM Majors

The proposed short, informal paper (target length ~1,000 words) discusses the author’s experience spring 2015 teaching for the first time a college grammar course that he designed for engineers and other STEM majors. To provide “user-friendliness” for math-based thinkers, the class examined the subject "through the lens of math," and used as grounds for instruction a new linguistic approach—Sentence Algebra (a method developed by the author). The author is a mechanical engineer with industry experience, who now teaches full-time for a university writing program.

The pilot STEM grammar course was delivered in weekly lectures and discussion sections. Lessons ranged from teaching the author’s math model for the architecture of English sentences, centered around eight functional variables (the eight parts of speech) and five basic equations (equivalent to the root sentence formula identified and defined by generative grammar); the syntax and conventions guiding sentence algebra equations; and useful applications such as reconciling pronouns and antecedents by solving for X, where X stands for a pronoun that pairs with a noun = N. The class also surveyed the history of the English language, other grammar systems, and current areas of research in contemporary linguistics, for example, computational linguistics and the design of word recognition software.

The course roster included students pursuing undergraduate degrees in engineering, science, and math—yet also (because the course listing was open/nonexclusive) included an assortment of non-STEM students with majors such as communication, economics, and Japanese. Overall, the students (both STEM and non-STEM alike) adapted well to the math-based grammar approach and, relative to class average scores on the 1st midterm, 2nd midterm, and final exam, demonstrated a positive upward trend. End-of-class evaluations were positive. However, the class stirred controversy among the instructor’s peers in Rhetoric/Composition, English, and Linguistics. The class was not offered the subsequent academic year, due disagreement among departments where the class should be academically situated. At present, a proposal is in the works to offer the class as a GE course in the College of Engineering. Although this paper does offer a brief survey of current literature on the topic of grammar education, it is primarily a reflection of a new project in-progress rather than fully contextualized and conclusive report.

Henderson, B. J. (2016, June), Pioneering a Math-Based Grammar Course for Engineering and Other STEM Majors Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25906

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