Work in progress: Embedding a large writing course in engineering design - A new model to teach technical writing

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A survey of more than 1000 professional engineers reveals that communication is one of the top two skills needed in the profession [1]. Not surprising, many engineering colleges have responded to such surveys with requirements that their engineering students learn technical writing. In one common model, engineering students take a standalone technical writing course. Such a course might be situated in an English Department. Example institutions that successfully use this approach are Rose-Hulman [2] and Iowa State. Another location for such a standalone technical writing course might be in the college of engineering. Prominent examples can be found at the University of Wisconsin-Madison [3], the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas at Austin [4]. In both models, students receive a full term of instruction on writing and generally receive much feedback on style and form: how clear and connected the sentences are and how well the writing abides to rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage. A downside is that the assignments do not reflect well what the students experience as professionals because not only is the scope of the documents defined by the students (rather than by a manager) but also the students receive little feedback on the technical accuracy of the content. Another common model, often used sequentially with the first, is that engineering students learn technical writing through a writing-intensive design or laboratory course. In this model, while the students experience writing assignments more closely aligned with what they experience as professionals, the instruction on writing in larger such courses is often limited to only a few class periods [5]. Moreover, students in larger courses often do not receive detailed feedback on style and form. While surveys of recent graduates and engineering department heads support the contention that these approaches are preparing engineers to write, another survey of industry managers refutes that contention. In 2012, an ASME survey of 590 early career engineers found that 75 percent assessed their own preparation of engineering writing as sufficient or strong [6]. In that same ASME study, a survey of 42 heads of mechanical engineering departments across the United States found that 65 percent viewed their communication programs as strong or successful at preparing engineering students to communicate. In contrast, that same ASME study conducted a survey of 647 industry supervisors and found that 52 percent of the supervisors viewed the writing preparation of early career engineers as weak. This paper investigates a model for larger engineering departments that differs significantly from the two common ones discussed above. This third model consists of a full-fledged writing course embedded within a large engineering design course that has 150 - 200 students each semester. While small departments have attempted similar integrations with fewer than 50 students [7, 8], this paper presents the second year of an experiment to do so at a larger scale with currently 75 students in the writing course and plans to scale to more than 100. One example in the literature of such an effort has occurred at MIT [9]. Although this course provided detailed feedback on four assignments to a large number of students in a bioengineering course, the course did so using a number of graduate teaching assistants-an option that many public institutions cannot afford. This paper first compares the standalone technical writing and the new embedded writing course (note that we name the embedded course “engineering writing” because the course consists only of engineers). Discussed next are the observed advantages and disadvantages of the embedded writing course. Concluding this work-in-progress paper are preliminary results and our long-range plans to assess the new model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - Jun 15 2019
Event126th ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition: Charged Up for the Next 125 Years, ASEE 2019 - Tampa, United States
Duration: Jun 15 2019Jun 19 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Engineering


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