Writing Across the Engineering Curriculum

Laura Grossenbacher--image credit: COE portraits According to typical academic stereotypes, the gulf between the skill-sets required for engineering and writing is wide - but Laura Grossenbacher, head of the Technical Communication program in Engineering Professional Development, doesn't think that is the case. Instead, she believes that the two can be very complementary.

While engineering students have many technical skills to learn in the course of completing an engineering degree, they also must learn to communicate about their technical work in order to be successful in their careers, "which is the mission of all the instructors in the Technical Communication program," Grossenbacher notes.

"Engineering faculty members know a lot about communication. They have worked in industry and gotten funding, but they don't often analyze how they communicate," says Grossenbacher. She would like to give her students as many opportunities as possible to do exactly that.

With funding from the COE 2010 grant and active collaborations with three professors who teach Senior Design courses, Grossenbacher says "I'd like to create a Writing Across the Curriculum system for engineering. I think it would motivate people to think about what we want in terms of communication skills for our students, to think about our expectations."

She notes that because communication expectations are often very different across different courses, students often treat their communication work - writing proposals, evaluating projects, and the like - in a very compartmentalized way, as if the writing styles that they learn in one class will not necessarily carry across to other projects.

"I see students taking a class, living through it somehow, and forgetting about it when they move on to the next thing. I want to show them that they should work on communication every year, and when they finally finish their degrees and get jobs, they'll use communication skills constantly there, too," she says.

Grossenbacher sees interdisciplinary courses as one possible remedy for this problem - after all, when students from across COE disciplines take courses together, they must discuss the technical specifics of their work with other students who do not always share the necessary background knowledge.

This year, Grossenbacher has been working with Mike Oliva, Frank Fronczak, and John Mitchell - three professors who teach service-oriented interdisciplinary design courses - to align a communication course (EPD 397 - Technical Communication) with the requirements of senior design.

"When students take interdisciplinary courses, they have to be able to talk in a language that cuts across all these disciplines. It can be really tough too... knowing how much to explain to people so that they understand what you want to do. But that's something they need to know going into industry. People in industry tell us how important it is, every year," she says.

In the course of her collaboration with senior design classes, one of the most important lessons that Grossenbacher has learned is that using common language and making expectations clear is critical for student learning.

"Many of the students in senior design have taken EPD 397, so I was surprised to find out that they didn't know how to write a proposal, which is an important part of 397. I found that it's tough to know the difference between what is required for a research proposal (the assignment in 397) and a design proposal. I've been trying to work on showing them the commonalities," Grossenbacher reports.

Another powerful finding she says, is simply her new specific knowledge of design curricula: "Now I know what the requirements are for their design courses. I can tell my students to really hold onto particular writing techniques, and what skills they will use every time that they write. There is real value to what we teach in 397, but the language that we use to talk about assignments like proposals could be more similar to what's used in the design courses."

For next year's 2010 project, Grossenbacher hopes to extend her collaboration into new courses. She and Susan Hagness have proposed a project linking a Technical Communication course to Introduction to Engineering's Grand Challenges, for example. Grossenbacher also hopes to receive outside funding to continue working with Frank Fronczak and Mike Oliva's design courses.

"A lot of the credit goes to the design professors because they are taking a lot of time to talk with me about how they want students to write and the language that they're using to describe it... In addition, I would like to talk with those folks who are doing innovative work and creating new classes, to see if and how we could include more writing across the curriculum work... since those classes pull from several disciplines and departments."

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For more information about the ideas in this article:

Flower, Linda and John R. Hayes. (1980). The cognition of discovery: defining a rhetorical problem. College Composition and Communication, 31(1): p. 21-32. (College Composition and Communication is available electronically through UW-Libraries.)

Even though this piece was published almost thirty years ago, it remains a seminal and interesting study of expert and novice writers, and how each go through different steps to conceptualize the task of writing a given assignment. One of the more interesting points that Flower and Hayes make is that while novices tend to regard a task on its own terms, just jumping into the writing, experts attempt to analyze what they know about the task first, matching and transferring what they know about similar tasks (for instance, "writing a proposal" or "writing an editorial") to the requirements for the one given.