Student’s ‘Technical Writing’ Helps His Baby Boy

Assignment Shows the Power of Data Communicated Visually

A student holds his baby.
Cameron Fitzpatrick, a computer science major, used a data project to help learn why his son wasn't gaining weight. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Quick Summary

  • UWP 104T assignment: Collect and track personal data, present it visually
  • Cameron Fitzpatrick focused on his baby boy, Caleb, who was not gaining weight — and gave the data to doctors
  • Caleb’s weight improved and Dad’s visualization project, now laminated, is in the baby book

When Cameron Fitzpatrick began his technical writing course, the senior computer science major couldn’t have imagined the impact that it would have. He had a lot on his mind. Fitzpatrick, a Fremont-born transfer student, had a newborn son, Caleb, who had not been gaining weight, leaving doctors confused and concerned.

Fitzpatrick had enrolled in one of the University Writing Program’s “Writing in the Professions” series, specifically UWP 104T, “Technical Writing,” taught by lecturer Kathie Gossett. Over the 20 years she has dedicated to technical writing, she said, she has witnessed its evolution from secretarial-style meeting notes to user experience work and software development. Many of her students have science backgrounds, while others are professional writing minors.

In winter quarter, Gossett assigned her students to collect and track their own personal data and visually present it. Students monitored aspects of their lives that were meaningful, such as daily habits or emotions. Gossett’s goal: to have each student understand the data and figure out how to communicate it visually in ways she or he wanted to be represented.

Nothing abstract about it

“(It) ends up looking like an abstract art piece, but it’s actually all data about themselves. Then they can look at each other’s visual data demographic and learn about each other,” Gossett said. “To see that kind of creativity on the part of my students — it’s incredible.”

Instead of gathering data on himself, Fitzpatrick wanted to focus on his baby, Caleb, born in January, who suffered from acid reflux. As a result, feeding was difficult, and Caleb was not gaining weight. “I thought that by being able to track that data, it would show me a lot about what was going on,” Fitzpatrick said.

He approached Gossett with the idea, and she approved.

Initially, Fitzpatrick documented three aspects of Caleb’s daily life: feeding, diapers and sleeping. He quickly discovered that sleeping was too hard to track; as new parents, Fitzpatrick and his girlfriend, Cassandra, needed to sleep when Caleb did. Fitzpatrick recorded when and how long Caleb fed. He additionally observed every diaper change, and would record size, type and time.

After completing the project, Fitzpatrick decided to speak to Caleb’s doctors and share the data he had collected.

‘It was crazy how much it helped’

The information helped. The doctors suggested less time breastfeeding, no more than 15 minutes on each side or he would burn more calories than he was receiving. Then they recommended supplementing with a bottle.

Caleb immediately started gaining more weight and keeping it on. Now, he has started eating rice cereal and solid foods.

“It was crazy how much it helped,” he said. “I did something meaningful to me, so I could get something meaningful out of it. But what I got out of it was so much more rewarding than I could have anticipated.”

When Caleb was born, his handprints and footprints were printed in ink. Fitzpatrick said, “I laminated the visualization project and I’m keeping it with that. That’s how much it means to me.” When asked about being a father, Fitzpatrick said there is a lot less sleep, but a lot more motivation. “I honestly could not imagine life without him.”

For Gossett, “This is a great example of taking a project in a class and being able to solve a real-world problem that he and his family were having. And I think that this is the power of data; this is exactly what I am trying to get my students to see.”

Fitzpatrick received an A on his project.

“Looking back at all the work I’ve done at Davis,” said Fitzpatrick, who is set to graduate in the fall, “it’s the most important project I’ve done.”

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