Brief Description: This assignment calls for students to investigate a particular disaster (or at least a severe problem) in their field caused by miscommunication or lack of communication. It works well as an initial assignment in a technical writing course with students from several different disciplines.
Each student researches a disaster (or at least a severe problem) in her field caused by miscommunication or non-communication. At the outset of the unit, I discuss the cases of Three Mile Island and the the Space Shuttle Challenger; a wealth of excellent information regarding the latter is available at Amy Lawless's Rhetoric of the Challenger Disaster site.
Based on her research -- which I encourage her to begin by discussing possible topics with faculty members in her discipline -- I ask each student to give a brief PowerPoint presentation on the disaster, and write a 1000-1500 word memo about it. The stipulated audience is a group of managers in the student's (present or future) workplace; the rhetorical purpose is to make them aware of a problem that has happened elsewhere, so that it doesn't happen again. This requires the student to give some data about how the mis/non-communication might have been prevented.