Engineering Department Writing Program
In considering the implementation of the W-course system in the Engineering Department it was felt that no one single course seemed adequate for the depth of writing activity and goals of writing enriched courses. Instead, we would like to propose that the engineering department be given the status of a writing enriched program which offers a writing enriched experience already throughout the curriculum.
One of the driving concerns for the engineering department since the inception of the BSE degree has been how our curriculum conforms to standards set by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). This is an organization which is primarily made up of representatives from the various professional societies. In its "Criteria for Accrediting Programs in Engineering in the United States," ABET states that "competency in written communication in the English language is essential for the engineering graduate. Although specific coursework requirements serve as a foundation for such competency, the development and enhancement of writing skills must be demonstrated through student work in engineering courses as well as other studies." Although the engineering program has evolved somewhat over the years, this commitment to quality writing has been designed into the curriculum from the very beginning.
The major sources of exposure of students to writing within the engineering program follow a thread beginning in the freshman year and continue in each year through the senior year. We feel that it is important that the student learn from day one that English (and the accompanying writing skills) is not viewed as a second language within the engineering profession. An outline of this exposure follows:
The students are given a "Creativity Kit" containing common household items such as paper clips and rubber bands, along with a set of task specifications for performing a particular task. When handing in the completed product, students are also required to write an evaluation of their design, critically evaluating its weaknesses and suggesting improvements.
A much larger assignment is the concept design project. Students are divided into groups of 3-4 and given a problem which they must research and propose an engineering solution. While doing the research and design, the students must submit written task specifications and a detailed plan for completion of the project. These items are reviewed and returned with comments, but are not graded. A written paper is the final product in which they set forth their design goals, refined task specifications, design alternatives, and analysis of their final design. They are encouraged to show critical thinking in this evaluation by pointing out both the strengths and weaknesses of their design. These papers are usually 10-15 pages in length.
This is the first engineering laboratory course, which students take in their sophomore year. It carries a 1/4 course credit and accompanies the introductory electronic circuits class. The technical material in this course closely corresponds to the lecture material in ENGR 204 and is designed to reaffirm the theory presented in lecture with "hands on" exposure in lab. An additional goal is to explore different techniques for modeling physical phenomena and determining the merit of one approach over another. While these comparisons can be done to some degree through quantitative measures, students are also asked to communicate "what it means." It is too easy to get lost in the mathematics in some classes and lose perspective, and writing is used as a tool for retaining perspective.
The course is also used to teach students how to write a technical report. ENGR 284 is ideal for this, since it is a core course in the engineering curriculum and a common approach to style and content can be used for all students. They are assigned three "formal" writeups in the semester and three "informal" writeups. The informal reports center on writing up a summary of the experiment results and a statement of accuracy. The format is similar to that of a technical memorandum in industry. The formal writeup is a full report, requiring introduction, procedure, results, analysis, and conclusions. For these reports a rough draft is required initially, and most of the credit is given for completion of the assignment. The rough drafts are critiqued and handed back to students for re-writes with a final draft due one week later for the majority of the credit. On the first such formal report, students are required to make an appointment with the instructor for personal feedback after the final draft has been graded. These reports are usually 5-10 pages of text (with another 5-10 pages of graphs, tables and data), and students are urged to write clearly and concisely to avoid excessive page count.
Junior Technical Writing Seminar
In the junior year, engineering students begin a concentration in either electrical, mechanical, or civil engineering. During this year, the students have few, if any courses in common between the concentrations. One common point, however, is that all concentrations have a lab course in the spring of the junior year. For the first formal lab report of the semester, students will be given a personal appointment to review their writing with the instructor. The length of these reports is again on the order of 10 pages.
In addition to typical lab and term paper writing in several courses, a technical writing seminar is given in which professional technical writers are invited in to talk to students. This seminar is followed up by taking a lab report from each student from a laboratory course in their concentration. This report is submitted to the technical writing team for evaluation and eventually returned to the students with comments. Students judged deficient must resubmit revised work and eventually complete this requirement satisfactorily for graduation.
The Senior Design Course
The senior design sequence of courses is a year long capstone design course required of all engineering students. All three concentrations are once again brought back together in an interdisciplinary environment for a full-scale design project. Students are for the most part allowed to choose their own design groups of 4-5 and are required to find their own projects (subject to faculty approval). This effort leads up to the Engineering Banquet in early May where the prototype designs are publicly displayed.
In this part of the senior design sequence the students form groups, find projects, and work toward an initial goal of producing a project proposal and feasibility study by the end of the semester. As the projects develop, assignments are made to write task specifications, alternate design descriptions, a preliminary design description, cost and time planning reports, a preliminary evaluation of feasibility, and further refined task specifications. These materials are treated as rough drafts leading up to the completed feasibility study and are handed back to students after evaluation without grading.
At one point, all written materials in their current state of refinement are sent to an engineering consultant for review. This is followed up by a personal visit in which the consultant spends two hours with each group reviewing their project.
In addition to the already mentioned assignments, students are required to keep a design journal detailing a comprehensive account of their project activities. This serves as a record for their own future reference on the project and is also a convenient tool for feedback from the faculty. To accomplish this, students buy a journal with duplicate pages so that they can tear out a copy of their work to hand in for weekly evaluation. This evaluation takes the form of commenting both on the quality of the journal and the project work itself. The journals are not graded until the end of the semester. The length of the journals at the end of the semester can vary depending on the nature of the specific project, but a general rule of thumb which seems to quite effective is that a high quality journal will be in the 25-40 page range.
Near the end of the semester, a Project Proposal and Feasibility Study is written incorporating all of the rough draft elements developed throughout the semester. This report is then graded both on technical merit and on the effectiveness with which the ideas in the proposal are communicated. These feasibility study reports are required to be no longer than 25 pages, excluding charts, graphs, and appendices.
This second semester course concentrates more on the design and prototyping aspects of engineering, but an in depth report is required at the end of the semester, and the weekly journal evaluations continue. Many elements of the feasibility study, such as goal statements and task specifications, tend to add continuity in the writing of the first and second semester reports. Grading is once again based both on the technical aspects of the design as well as on the written communication of the design. A target length of this report is also set at 25 pages, and the daily log books by the end of the year are 60-100 pages.
It is also part of this proposal that the courses specifically targeted
as part of the Engineering department writing program be designated in
the college catalog along with appropriate course content descriptions.