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How Stuff Works Writing Prompts

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This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Description: Ask students to employ newly-learned concepts in explaining “how stuff works.” The engineering concept(s) can either be stated or left to the student to infer based on the object or process they are tasked to explain.

When useful: These writing prompts link concepts to the real world and give students practice in applying concepts to new situations.

Audience considerations: Instructors or TAs may advise students to write to a lay audience who is not familiar with engineering concepts or technical processes. They may also ask students to format their answers into steps or bullets or to include a diagram or infographic with their explanations.

Assignment length: Can range from several paragraphs to several pages

Connection to “writing to learn”: Students reinforce their knowledge of complex technical concepts and processes by explaining how they work to audiences who do not have technical knowledge. They must also consider how the concepts they learn in class apply to real processes and objects.


  • Fluid mechanics: Explain how a siphon works (concept unstated)
  • Fluid mechanics: Explain how a siphon works, using the Bernoulli principle (concept stated)
  • Statics: Explain how the gears of a bicycle work. What is changing when you change gears?
  • Thermodynamics: Explain how industrial chillers use the First Law of Thermodynamics to cool machines.
  • Circuits: How does a flashlight work? Make sure you describe all components and how they function using appropriate scientific concepts. You may also want to provide a circuit diagram.