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A Math-Based System to Improve Engineering Writing Outcomes

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Teaching Communication I

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.64.1 - 24.64.35

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Paper Authors


Brad Jerald Henderson University of California, Davis

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Brad Henderson is a faculty in writing for the University Writing Program (UWP) at University of California, Davis. Henderson holds a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo and a Masters in Professional Writing (MPW) from University of Southern California. Currently focusing his career on engineering communication and professionalism, he has worked as a design engineer and technical education specialist for Parker-Hannifin Aerospace and Hewlett-Packard Inkjet. Henderson was featured in the book—Engineers Write! Thoughts on Writing from Contemporary Literary Engineers by Tom Moran (IEEE Press 2010)—as one of twelve ”literary engineers” writing and publishing creative works in the United States. Henderson’s current project is a textbook pioneering a new method for teaching engineers workplace writing skills through the lens of math.

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A Math-Based System to Improve Engineering Writing OutcomesThis paper documents an ongoing engineering education project that partners the development ofa new method for teaching engineering writing through the lens of mathematics, with theadvancement of a university assessment initiative. The project stages system trials to occur inboth a writing class for engineers and an engineering machine design class. In the latter case, thestrategy is to thread compact just-in-time (J.I.T.) instructional modules into technical units ofstudy that require status report memos or a final report. This project is a partnership between theauthor—an engineering communication specialist and experienced mechanical engineer whonow teaches for a university writing program—and a senior mechanical engineering professorand department co-chair seeking to resolve specific problems in teaching engineeringcommunications. An internal grant awarded by the university’s office of the provost supportsand unifies the project and its two leads.Since spring of 2012, the author has been pioneering an alternative approach for developingprofessional writing skills in undergraduate engineers. The system is built around two premises:that engineering majors share literacy in the language of mathematics; and that these learnersrespond well to traditional, stair-step pedagogy which builds upon core skills to achieveincreasing levels of competency. The method employs three levels: Level One uses arithmeticaland algebraic principles to understand sentences as equations with the parts of speech asvariables. Level Two focuses on more complex applications of “sentence algebra” to helpengineering writers troubleshoot common sentence-level errors and develop a clear, discipline-specific style. Level Three uses flowcharts as algorithms to teach the rhetoric behind effectivedocument structures. The system’s quantitative approach and bottom-up paradigm make it user-friendly for engineering students by guiding their ascent toward writing mastery using anapproach already encountered in the students’ studies of math, physics, chemistry, and otherSTEM disciplines.Paired with the project’s purpose of teaching writing within a math landscape is its effort tostrategically evaluate project impact through assessment. While it is top-level linked to ABET’sgeneral student outcomes criterion (g) “an ability to communicate effectively,” the project’scourse- and assignment-level objectives align with more narrowly scoped, concrete outcomes.For example, project assessment measures an engineering student’s ability, given a very specificwriting task, such as generating a status report memo, to align the document’s message withpurpose, audience, and context.The co-lead’s primary goal is to identify a common set of engineering writing best-practices forfaculty who teach engineering design classes with significant report writing, with the idea thatthey will benefit from standardized assignment guidelines and grading criteria, and students willwork to a common standard for excellence in engineering writing. To measure outcomes, theproject uses Kirkpatrick Leve1 1, 2, and 3 instruments including scaled, pre- and post-activityperceptual evaluations, “minute papers,” and analyses of sample papers from the engineeringdesign class.The paper also acknowledges emergent issues. For instance, there appears to be uneven need forsentence-level instruction in engineering students prior to their studying document algorithms.Thus, the J.I.T. modules are being designed to avoid esoteric moorings to “sentence algebra” andto function equally well for students who transfer into the math-based system at Level 2 or 3.Future expansions of the project can include adaptations useful throughout STEM disciplines andin ESL instruction of math-based thinkers, as well as in refining and repackaging the J.I.Tmodules for online delivery and hybrid classes.

Henderson, B. J. (2014, June), A Math-Based System to Improve Engineering Writing Outcomes Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana.

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