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Communications And Freshman Engineering: An Immiscible Solution?

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2001 Annual Conference


Albuquerque, New Mexico

Publication Date

June 24, 2001

Start Date

June 24, 2001

End Date

June 27, 2001



Page Count


Page Numbers

6.280.1 - 6.280.7

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Lisa Lebduska

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David DiBiasio

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 2793

Communications and Freshman Engineering: An Immiscible Solution?

Lisa Lebduska, David DiBiasio, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Introducing engineering students to the rewards and responsibilities of being an engineer has long been a goal of engineering education. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) specifies that in addition to technical competence, students should have an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility, an ability to communicate effectively, and a knowledge of contemporary issues. At WPI, we attempted to achieve these goals by designing a first-year “mini” (one-credit) course that would actively engage students in the chemical engineering profession while increasing their understanding of speaking and writing as problem-solving tools and means of reflection rather than isolated activities for recording engineered solutions. We used several methods of evaluation to evaluate the success of this course, including focus groups conducted by an external evaluator; an external evaluation of the portfolios, and our own assessment of the students’ portfolios.


Most first-year students have little in-depth knowledge of their chosen profession. This is particularly true in engineering since there are few high school experiences connected to the profession. Most chemical engineering departments do not offer core courses until the sophomore year, and hence have little contact with first-year students interested in chemical engineering. Recently more departments are offering seminars or other career-oriented activities for first-year students 1. Early engagement with the profession can increase motivation for learning and improve retention in the major 2,3. Improving student understanding of engineering should certainly allow students to make informed, rational decisions about their academic and professional careers. Opportunities are few for fixing this problem, however, and frequently consist of passive activities such as seminars and introductory technical courses. A process that actively and enthusiastically engages students in learning about engineering is needed.

In addition to improving motivation for learning and retention in the major, students’ ability to identify with their chosen profession also seems to influence their ability to write effectively. Science writing is often influenced by “a student’s inadequate sense of self as scientist”4 ; a similar rhetorical struggle would be expected for students in engineering disciplines. If engineering students do not view themselves as engineers, they cannot become fully aware of the audience to which they are writing and the specific needs of that audience. Consequently, they approach engineering writing without adequate knowledge of the language practices that define their discipline.

The methodologies used to address this writing dilemma are themselves problematic. Institutions have adopted a range of approaches to improve science students’ writing skills, such as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) courses that integrate scientific content with rhetorical analysis. Despite their good intentions, however, some of these WAC approaches have nevertheless failed to prepare engineering students adequately for the types of writing tasks that they will encounter academically and in their careers. As scientists and non-scientists often use

Ž Proceedings of the 2001 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright 2001, American Society for Engineering Education

Lebduska, L., & DiBiasio, D. (2001, June), Communications And Freshman Engineering: An Immiscible Solution? Paper presented at 2001 Annual Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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