Illumin, Student-Run Engineering Magazine, Celebrates 20 Years

| April 21, 2020

Twenty years ago, USC Viterbi launched the first student-produced online publication that examined the intersection of engineering applications and everyday life.

Illumin seeks to explore the widespread applications of engineering in everyday life (Image Credit: Eva Hill)

Illumin seeks to explore the widespread applications of engineering in everyday life (Image Credit: Eva Hill)

What do a hologram of Tupac Shakur performing at Coachella in 2012, the body positioning and aerodynamics of a Tour de France winning cyclist, and the arrangement of a grocery store have in common?

They’re all examples of ways that principles of engineering can be applied in everyday life, and stories about them have appeared in Illumin, the online magazine of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering — now celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Illumin was one of the first online publications at USC that was entirely written, edited, and published by engineering students. It remains one of only a handful of such publications in the entire United States. Its mission: illuminate the integral role of engineering in everyday life. USC Viterbi students pen all the content.

“With Illumin, we hope to help dispel in some small way the stereotype that engineers can’t communicate well,” said Steve Bucher, a professor of technical communication practice who founded the publication in 1999 and serves as Illumin’s faculty advisor and director of the Engineering Writing Program.

The publication’s 20th birthday, said Bucher, speaks to the hard work and dedication of years of USC Viterbi students and professors consistently publishing strong, high-quality content.

In honor of the anniversary, the Illumin team plans to soon publish a hard copy edition of the magazine that will feature popular past articles. The special publication will include articles that reflect each of the engineering school’s eight departments.

Bucher said he founded the publication because he wanted to give engineering students an opportunity to understand and articulate the impact their disciplines have on everyday life. He also wanted to strengthen their written communication skills.

“Although it may seem more common today, teaching something like writing and communication to engineering students was actually quite a novel idea at the time that Illumin was founded,” said Elisabeth Arnold Weiss, a USC Viterbi associate professor of technical communication practice.

An important goal of Illumin is to make engineering accessible to a variety of readers by explaining complex, scientific ideas in easy-to-understand English.

“We want to engage readers of all backgrounds in technology, science and engineering in a way so that they understand and value the contributions of these fields and how they affect our everyday lives,” said Kiera Shepard, an Illumin associate editor and a senior studying biomedical engineering at USC Viterbi.

Illumin consistently receives new content from students enrolled in WRIT 340: Communications for Engineers, which has made writing an article for Illumin a pillar of the curriculum. Illumin receives over 200 submissions each semester. Student editors choose about four to six articles to run in each issue of Illumin, and new issues of Illumin are published online between three and six times per year.

The selection process is competitive, and editors consider characteristics like the author’s voice and the use of multimedia.

“We want articles that are exciting to read and don’t feel like a textbook,” said Melisa Osborne, a student editor at Illumin since 2016. Osborne received her master’s in biomedical engineering from Viterbi last year and is currently a Ph.D. student in the molecular and computational biology program at USC. “We want to make sure that anyone, regardless of their educational background, can walk away having learned something.”

In addition to reviewing submissions, Illumin student editors are responsible for controlling the website design, leading outreach programs, and collaborating with professors to educate students about writing for the publication.

“Every semester, we go to WRIT 340 classes for a Q&A on writing for Illumin, which can be different from writing for a class,” Osborne said.

In the future, Illumin hopes to expand its communication mediums through the development of podcasts and collaborative events between students and professionals. In the next year, the online publication plans to hold a “write-a-thon” to expose more USC students to the field of science communication.

“We want to bring in professionals in the science communication field as advisers, group leads, and judges in the hope that introducing students to professionals in this field might spark an interest in students,” said Shepard, the Illumin associate editor.

The Illumin team is also considering plans to expand the publication’s reach by accepting submissions from universities across the nation.

“Engineering is so often perceived as untethered from the rest of society,” Professor Arnold Weiss said, “and Illumin’s power lies in emphasizing the ubiquitous and integral role that engineering plays in daily life.”

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