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An Engineering Approach to Writing: A Pilot Program for Civil Engineering Graduate Students

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Civil Engineering Poster Session

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.167.1 - 22.167.19



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Paper Authors


Christianna Irene White Iowa State University, Institute for Transportation

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Christianna White has a Ph.D. in rhetoric and professional communication, an M.A. in business and technical communication, and a B.A. in psychology. She is an editor and writing coach who specializes in working with graduate students on master's theses or dissertations. In addition to her affiliation with the Iowa State University Institute for Transportation, she operates C I White and Associates.

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David J. White Iowa State University

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David White holds a B.S. (University of Missouri, Columbia, 1997), M.S. degree (Iowa State University 1999), and a Ph.D. (Iowa State University 2000), all in civil engineering. He has been on the faculty of the department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering at Iowa State University of Science and Technology since 2001, and currently holds the rank of Associate Professor and is the holder of the Wegner Professorship.
Dr. White is the Director of Earthworks Engineering Research Center at Iowa State University and is in charge of the Iowa State University Geotechnical Mobile Laboratory.
Dr. White has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in introduction to soil engineering, foundation analysis and design, experimental testing, soil behavior, and soil stabilization and compaction.
Dr. White has research interests in ground improvement systems, intelligent soil compaction, automated machine guidance technologies, soil stabilization, soil-structure interaction, and developing new in-situ testing equipment and sensor technologies.
Dr. White has advised more than 25 graduate students and has over 100 technical publications. Research sponsors include the Federal Highway Administration, National Science Foundation, National Cooperative Highway Research Program, state Departments of Transportation, and several Industry partners.
Dr. White is an affiliate of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and an active member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE). Dr. White is the recipient of the 2007 ASCE Arthur Casagrande Professional Development Award.

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An Engineering Approach To Writing: A Pilot Program For Civil Engineering Graduate StudentsStatement of ObjectivesThis paper describes a pilot program established to promote excellent communication skills forcivil engineering (CE) graduate students through an extra-curricular communication pedagogyeffort. This paper reports on establishing the program by identifying key contributors, securingfunding, identifying student participants, and defining expectations and desired outcomes.The paper discusses key elements of the program including: initiating a collaboration between atechnical communication professional and a CE faculty member; identifying commoncommunication issues; developing effective writing strategies and tools (e.g., templates, problemstatement worksheet); designing and using a calendar for accountabilty and team building;creating custom handouts for rapid responses to student needs; and organizing small-groupworkshops, one-on-one writing coaching sessions, and structured peer reviews.The paper presents an assessment of the pilot program that will identify effective interventionsand discuss plans for modifications based on those results.Relevance to Civil EngineeringThis paper should be of broad interest to the CE education community because, “to be anengineer is to be a technical communicator. Engineering is a problem-solving profession andclear communication leads to effective solutions” (Hart 2009, 1). Further, both the AmericanSociety of Civil Engineers BOK II (2008) and ABET (2008) stress teaching technicalengineering skills and communication skills to prepare students for professional practice becauseemployers in both industry and academic settings consistently rank technical ability andcommunication and teamwork skills as the most desireable proficiencies.Although this preparation usually is undertaken at the undergraduate level, the approach reportedhere intends to develop these proficiencies in graduate-level CE students. Because there isseldom space in CE graduate engineering curricula for courses in communication, this programemploys a team- and experience-based communication pedagogy approach that is grounded inthe student engineers’ research and documentation efforts within a CE department and a researchinstitute at XXX XXX University.Because both communication and CE practices are complex and recursive, this programapproaches the development of communication and engineering skills as parallel processes.Figure 1 compares the recursive writing process and the well-known Observation Methodproposed by Terzaghi (in Peck 1969). Emphasizing this parallel was a starting point with thestudents and carries through all aspects of the program.AssessmentThe authors have identified two processes for assessing student performance and two processesfor evaluating the pilot program. • Assess drafts at several stages to ensure that students are on track for meeting project deadlines and that they understand their research and communication tasks in a CE context. • Facilitate review of the quality of students’ written and oral communication to assess the effectiveness of interventions. • Facilitate program review by student participants, research staff, CE faculty, and technical communication educators. • Analyze the time required to develop effective communication skills and assess how to integrate that time in or as a complement to CE curricula or research projects.ResultsThe results section of the paper will report and analyze these preliminary assessment outcomesand suggest directions for future research and practice.Works CitedAccreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. (2008). Criteria for Accrediting Engineering programs: Effective for Evaluations During the 2009-2010 Accreditation Cycle. (accessed October 8, 2010).Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge for the 21st Century: Preparing the Civil Engineer for the Future, 2nd ed. (accessed September 28, 2010).Hart, H. (2009). Engineering Communication, 2nd ed. Pearson Education: Upper Saddle River, NJ.Nicholson, D., Tse, C., and Penny, C. (1999). The Observational Method in ground engineering—principles and applications. Report 185. CIRIA, London.Peck, R.B. (1969). “Advantages and limitations of the Observational Method in Applied Soil Mechanics,” Geotechnique, 19(2), pp. 171–187.

White, C. I., & White, D. J. (2011, June), An Engineering Approach to Writing: A Pilot Program for Civil Engineering Graduate Students Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17448

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