Incorporating Writing into an Engineering Course—Rémy Lequesne (2014)
A professor in the Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering department incorporates a writing component in his course that gives graduate engineering students practice writing and communicating their ideas on a technical topic.
Advanced Design of Reinforced Concrete Structures (CE 764) is a graduate-level structural engineering course focused on advanced design topics (primarily for buildings) that are presented in the context of research results and theory. However, a successful engineering career requires more than sound engineering judgment; it requires an ability to communicate, both orally and in writing, with colleagues and clients. Thus, I developed a writing component for CE 764 to give students practice writing and communicating their ideas on a technical topic with concision and clarity.
Students were tasked with writing an 8-10 page paper addressing a design topic of their choosing. In the papers, students were to explain the selected design problem and then describe and examine solutions that practicing engineers have implemented. I scaffolded the assignment so that students submitted a topic proposal, an outline and preliminary reference list, and a draft for peer review. The final report was due the last week of the semester.
In general, student performance was quite good. It was a pleasure to read so many summaries of interesting and thought-provoking design problems and to learn about the innovative and practical solutions developed by engineers.
However, there were areas for improvement as well. Several students struggled with organizing their ideas into a coherent and sequential argument. In addition, several students demonstrated difficulty in selecting strong and pertinent references as well as proper citation of references.
Although there were clear areas for improvement, the first implementation of the writing project was a success. The students were able to practice defining a problem, exploring solutions, and communicating findings, all of which are essential skills for practicing engineers.
However, review of the projects also confirmed that many students need further practice developing and presenting an argument in a coherent and concise manner. Thus, I revised the steps of the project for future iterations of the course. While maintaining the first two steps, I replaced an optional peer review draft with a required instructor-review draft and added a review and resubmit option.
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Advanced Design of Reinforced Concrete Structures (CE 764; see Syllabus) is a graduate-level structural engineering course taken primarily by students in the master’s degree program in Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering. Although it is a masters-level course, some doctoral students also enroll. The course is relatively large, having 20 to 30 students, and lecture-based, with opportunities for discussion and practice. In nearly all cases, students take this course to fulfill the degree requirements.
CE 764 is the second in a series of three courses focused on the design of reinforced concrete buildings. The course is focused on advanced design topics (primarily for buildings) that are presented in the context of research results and theory. In this course, students both develop a better understanding of how reinforced concrete structures behave and improve their ability to design reinforced concrete systems. In class, students learn about structural member types, configurations, and loadings, are introduced to research investigating each topic, and learn how building codes that govern reinforced concrete building design address pertinent issues. Outside of class, students apply their knowledge to assigned problems that are practical in nature but may not have a straightforward answer. In-class discussions, examples, and homework are designed to mimic problems students will encounter in their careers as engineers and encourage students to find smart, efficient solutions.
Because of the nature of the class, students enrolled in CE 764 do not all share the same level of experience in reinforced concrete design; some may have just taken the first course in the series, others may be involved in research, and still others are currently working as structural engineers. Therefore, students have varying levels of expertise in the topic. While I strive to provide materials that should be new to most, if not all, students, the varying level of experience influences the course in two important ways: 1) I spend time at the beginning of the semester reviewing fundamental concepts to ensure students have a common knowledgebase before advancing to more complicated topics, and 2) Because several students have experience working as engineers, they are encouraged to offer their opinions and suggestions. This feedback provides a different (nonacademic) perspective and can spark interesting class discussions.
The major goal of CE 764 is for students to expand their understanding of reinforced concrete behavior and design with the aim of making them more versatile and thoughtful engineers. However, a successful engineering career requires more than sound engineering judgment; it requires an ability to communicate, both orally and in writing, with colleagues and clients. Unfortunately, many engineering students struggle to clearly communicate technical ideas in writing, perhaps due to limited opportunities for practice. Thus, I developed a writing component for CE 764 to give students practice writing and communicating their ideas on a technical topic concisely and clearly.
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The aim of the writing assignment was for students to:
- expand their understanding of a design-related issue faced by practicing engineers
- practice writing in a clear and concise manner on a technical topic
- gain experience locating, selecting, and synthesizing relevant information available in the literature.
Students were tasked with writing an 8-10 page paper addressing a design topic of their choosing. Topics included design of lateral bracing systems for tall buildings, reinforcement placement in difficult-to-build precast concrete components, and the engineering implications of replacing cement in concrete with more environmentally friendly materials. Students were to describe the selected design problem and then describe and examine solutions that practicing engineers have implemented. Students could choose to: focus on a single problem and address how engineers might solve it; highlight different alternative solutions and offer a suggestion about which may be most effective; or suggest an alternative solution (based on research on the topic) that would help a designer faced with the problem.
I designed the assignment to include the following steps, three of which were required and one of which was optional:
- After a brief review of how to access library and writing resources available on campus, students submitted a proposed topic for their paper. The submission included a preliminary title and a brief abstract explaining the proposed idea. Students received individual feedback on their submission that focused on either narrowing or broadening the scope of the proposed topic.
- Approximately midway through the semester, students submitted an outline of their paper and a preliminary list of references. Students received individual feedback that focused on the scope and presentation of their argument as well as the appropriateness of the selected references.
- At the beginning of the final quarter of the semester, students had the option of turning in a draft of their paper for peer review. Students who wanted to partake in the peer-review process sent their drafts directly to the instructor, who then paired them with other students participating in the peer-review process.
- Students submitted their final report during the last week of the semester.
For the final report, I assigned a grade that was worth 20% percent of the students’ overall grade. Each milestone prior to the submission of the final paper was not graded; however, these milestones were designed to be opportunities for students to receive feedback and revise their approach to the assignment. These opportunities allowed for any needed corrections early in the process and for some peer review. In addition, I provided an example paper at the beginning of the course to help students better understand what was being asked of them.
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At the end of the semester, I read and graded each of the reports. There were several evaluative dimensions that were kept in mind when grading each report. Those dimensions, in order of importance, were:
- Understanding of topic: Students were expected to demonstrate a clear understanding of the selected topic. Although I did not require their knowledge to be exhaustive, I did expect students' ideas to be technically correct.
- Organization of ideas: Ideas were to be presented in a logical order and with clear transitions. Conclusions were expected to be succinct and substantiated by the body of the text. A case study (if included) was expected to be relevant and integrated with the rest of the text.
- Choice and use of references: The selected references were expected to be relevant and integrated into the text in a manner that contributed to and/or supported the ideas being presented.
- Topic and scope: The topic was to be relevant to practicing engineers, and I expected the paper's scope to be aligned with the topic. I expected that enough detail would be provided that a practicing engineer would learn from the report
- Style, grammar, and word choice: The writing style was expected to be clear and direct. The choice of words was supposed to convey meaning in a simple and clear manner.
After I evaluated the reports, each student received feedback specific to their work. In addition, I posted most of the reports (with written consent of the students) on the course-specific Blackboard site. The purpose of posting the reports online was to give the students an opportunity to learn from each other about topics related to, but outside of, the scope of the class.
In general, student performance was quite good (see example student papers 1, 2, and 3). It was a pleasure to read so many summaries of interesting and thought-provoking design problems and to learn about the innovative and practical solutions developed by engineers. With some exceptions, the students tended to demonstrate a solid technical understanding of their topics and to communicate their work in a manner that was clear. It was great to see that most of the students, many of whom were non-native English speakers, successfully expressed their ideas about a technical engineering topic in an understandable and clear way.
However, there were areas for improvement as well. Several of the students struggled with organizing their ideas into a coherent and sequential argument. In addition, several of the students demonstrated difficulty in selecting strong and pertinent references as well as proper citation of references. Although some students made excellent use of KU's Writing Center, less than 10% of the class elected to participate in the optional peer-review process.
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Although there were clear areas for improvement, the first implementation of the writing project was a success. The project provided an opportunity for students to learn independently about a topic related to the course and, likely, their careers. The students were able to practice defining a problem, independently exploring solutions, and communicating findings, all of which are essential skills for practicing engineers.
However, review of the projects also confirmed that many students need further practice developing and presenting an argument in a coherent and concise manner. This observation not only strengthened my resolve to include similar writing projects in other courses, but also caused me to reflect on the structure of the CE 764 assignment.
In particular, the optional peer-review process (which less than 10% of the students participated in) did not provide students with the thought-provoking feedback that it was designed to. Students therefore were not compelled to rethink and improve their work, and thus missed a key learning opportunity. For that reason, the optional peer-review “milestone” will be removed for future iterations of this course. Instead, students will submit their final reports for grading earlier in the term and then will have the opportunity to resubmit their work after receiving feedback. The revised order of milestones for the assignment is:
- Submit a proposed topic, including a preliminary title and a brief abstract (end of 1st quarter of semester).
- Submit an outline of the paper and a preliminary list of references (end of 2nd quarter of semester).
- Submit the final draft of the report to the instructor for grading (end of 3rd quarter of semester). The reports will be graded and returned to the students with specific feedback on their performance in relation to the evaluative dimensions previously mentioned (i.e., understanding, organization, references, scope, and style).
- (Optional) Revise and resubmit for grading at the end of the term. If students choose to resubmit their work, their final grade will be an average of their grades before and after resubmission.
The aim of the revise and resubmit feature of the new assignment structure is to provide students with an opportunity to revise their own work with a clear focus on the issues identified in the initial grading process. For example, I hope that a student who struggled with organizing ideas in their first submission will learn to focus on organization and structure through the revision process.
In addition, I will translate the evaluative dimensions that I used to grade each report into a detailed rubric. This will allow me to document student performance within and across each dimension as well as help track areas in which students may need further assistance in mastering. A copy of the completed rubric will also be given to students as part of their feedback.
Although it is not yet clear whether the changes will achieve their desired outcome, the experience has provided me with the following insights:
- A key to improved performance is practice with a focus on areas needing improvement. Asking students to only submit an assignment for evaluation at the end of the term neither compels them to think critically about the deficiencies in their work nor encourages them to practice addressing these deficiencies. To improve, students need targeted feedback and a mechanism that encourages them to revise and refine their writing.
- Although reading the papers showed that many of the students are well prepared to be independent problem solvers, it also affirmed that many of the students will benefit from multiple opportunities to refine their writing and communication skills.
- The process has increased my confidence in the importance of independent student-centered learning. Students demonstrated an ability to select, develop, and present ideas on a wide range of topics pertinent to practicing engineers. The process allowed the students to practice these skills while also becoming, in a sense, teachers as they shared their findings with their peers at the end of the term.
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