In selecting assignments for a technical writing class, it is important to consider trends in the field of technical communication. In an April 2001 article in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Breuch, Zachry, and Spinuzzi write that "in the past decade, usability testing and research have become critical tasks for technical communicators in the workplace" (JBTC, 15.2 (2001): 223.) Consequently, it is vital that students in technical writing class conduct a usability study. An assignment on documentation should also be included, for much of what a technical writer does is produce and revise documentation. If you feel that you and your students might need to enter the world of technical writing in a "comfortable, familiar" way, you might want to begin with a research oriented white paper.
The technical writing faculty at GSU recommends the online textbook aptly titled Professional Writing Online. It can be used for both technical and business writing courses. Assignments are provided in the Project section of the text; you may also create your own from real-life situations.
Possible Assignments from PWO
Industrial Design: The Elevator Buttons
You could also run a usability study on an existing document or Website at the University. Usability studies work very well as collaborative projects.Documentation
Please note: Most documentation projects have a usability component.
A fun way to introduce documentation is the well-known peanut butter and jelly sandwich making exercise. Divide the class groups of 3-5 students. They are to write instructions for making a PB & J sandwich. They exchange their set of instructions with another group. Each group then attempts to make a sandwich following the set of instructions they have received. The results are usually quite disastrous. This exercise makes students realize the difficulty in writing clear and comprehensive instructions
Audience Needs and Writing Style
You could also have the class examine your syllabus. The GSU technical writing faculty's syllabi are more graphically interesting than those of the literature faculty. This will introduce students to the importance of the "look" of a technical document.
You might also want to include readings from Writing a Professional Life: Stories of Technical Communicators On and Off the Job edited by Gerald J. Savage and Dale L. Sullivan. This easy to read book offers firsthand accounts of life and work experiences of technical writers.