An Interview-Based Study on Writing Instruction in Engineering Programs

For the fulfillment of Project 3 in EH-603: Editing for Publication, I plan to complete and edit the proposal for my master’s thesis, which will near its completion at the end of the Spring semester of 2018. The thesis will be completed and defended by the end of Fall 2018.

My thesis will examine the current state of engineering student writing skills in modern institutions, focusing specifically on the College of Engineering and its undergraduate programs at the University of Alabama Huntsville. Through interview-based research, I aim to take an inventory of the types of writing assignments engineers at UAH receive and how they would characterize their writing assignments, both in terms of how much they enjoy the assignments and whether they perceive them as practical to their respective careers. The research will be structured in the form of individual oral interviews with students in the Electrical, Computer, Mechanical, Aerospace, and Chemical Engineering programs, a survey of the UAH engineering course catalog, and examination of individual course syllabi. The objective is to gather as much information as possible on any writing-intensive courses and assignments. I will also describe research-grounded solutions to the existing challenges with attempting to integrate writing into engineering curricula and point to areas where more research is needed to address the unanswered questions and problems that persist. Ultimately, I aim to report on the implementation of writing activities in required courses other than freshman composition and suggest avenues for additional research on the value of the writing integration.

My thesis will be structured as a report on a research study, in which I will have chapters dedicated to an introduction, a literature review, the methodology, and one or several chapters on my findings and the discussion of them. The proposal will offer a brief overview of the of writing instruction in engineering programs, the experiences that led to my interest in the problem, and the research questions I aim to answer through my research. The current problem that I will examine is rooted in the fact that engineering instructors often rely too heavily on introductory college writing courses to prepare their students’ for the amount and the varieties of writing each particular discipline demands. Thus, introductory college writing instructors are often faced with the task of integrating strategies and rhetoric specific to various discourse communities in their general composition courses. The difficulty with integrating writing in the disciplines into one writing course is the diversity of disciplines that exist in modern institutions. A freshman level college writing course at UAH might see a rough average of 33% engineering, 18% science, 15% each of business and nursing, and less than 10% humanities students (“Facts and Figures”). The disproportionately high percentage of engineering students is not unusual in most STEM-intensive institutions. Moreover, engineering students do not represent one broad category; each group of engineering students may represent several distinctive concentrations within the principal discipline. At UAH, for example, approximately 30% of engineering students select Mechanical Engineering as their concentration, 20% select Aeronautical, and 14% select Electrical Engineering; the remainder represent an amalgamation of Chemical, Industrial Systems, and Optical Engineering (“Headcount Enrollment”).

While research on the theory behind WAC/WID pedagogy suggests promising results in terms of bridging the gap between the humanities and the sciences, there is still plenty of room for additional research on its practical applications. ABET has taken enormous strides in furthering the value of communication and rhetoric by encouraging STEM programs to integrate more communication skills and collaborative learning environments in their curricula. Kristin Walker, among many other WAC/WID advocates, indicates that “such integration is necessary in order to prepare students to work successfully in a global, diversified workplace” (369). This perspective is not unique to writing instructors, as engineering faculty tends to agree that the cultivation of writing skills is extremely important to tailoring professional engineers (Zhu 34).