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Dispelling Student Myths about Writing in Civil Engineering

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

NSF Grantees’ Poster Session

Tagged Topic

NSF Grantees Poster Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.552.1 - 26.552.11



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Paper Authors


Susan Conrad Portland State University

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Susan Conrad, Professor of Applied Linguistics, is the head of the Civil Engineering Writing Project, in which engineering faculty, engineering practitioners, and writing specialists collaborate to improve writing instruction in civil engineering courses. She has written numerous articles and books about English grammar, discourse, and corpus linguistics.

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Dispelling Student Myths about Writing in Civil EngineeringThis paper describes a classroom application from a project funded by the National ScienceFoundation that (1) investigates writing produced by civil engineers in the workplace andundergraduate students in civil engineering classes, and (2) develops teaching materials toimprove the teaching of writing. The research uses mixed methods techniques (Johnson &Onwuegbuzie, 2004) that combine quantitative linguistic analysis of the writing and qualitativeanalysis of interviews with practitioners and students. One finding from the research is thatmany students share certain myths about writing in civil engineering, and these mythscorrespond to ineffective characteristics of their writing. In this paper, we discuss three majormyths, show how they are manifest in writing, and describe the workshop we now use inintroductory courses to dispel these myths and provide practice with more effective writing.For decades employers have encouraged civil engineering programs to pay more attention to thedevelopment of workplace writing skills (e.g. Berthouex, 1996); however, virtually no large-scale studies had analyzed civil engineering practitioner writing. In contrast, the project reportedhere has analyzed over 400 documents from 70 firms and agencies and 400 papers from studentsat five universities, covering a range of sub-fields and document types. The project team includesapplied linguists (who study language variation in different communication contexts),engineering faculty, and engineers in the local community, so multiple perspectives are broughtto the project. In our findings, the three student myths that are the most common and the mostdamaging for writing in the workplace are:  You can make your writing more professional by using long sentences and fancy words.  Writing is a matter of “style,” completely separate from engineering content.  Rules of English grammar and punctuation don’t matter for civil engineering practice.The paper explains the sequence that we use in the workshop to dispel each myth, specifically:1. We provide quotations from students that reflect the myth and show samples from student papers that exemplify how the myth leads to ineffective writing. For example, for the first myth, one student said in an interview, “It looks better if it’s longer. I think it’s that simple.” We then display examples of the very long, hard-to-follow sentences that are typical of many student papers, calling attention to how difficult they are to understand.2. We display results of quantitative analyses that show the contrast between student and practitioner writing, and provide samples of practitioner writing to exemplify the differences. For example, the study found that over 50% of student sentences have embedded or complex structures, while only 23% of practitioner sentences do. We provide examples of practitioner sentences that convey complex, precise information with simple sentence structures.3. We provide quotations from practitioner interviews that reinforce the need to dispel the myth. For example, we share comments such as “Our clients need to be able to read fast and get the idea clearly right away.” We connect the comments to the previous writing samples.4. We give students practice activities in which they revise ineffective passages from papers written by previous students.The paper concludes with brief analysis of post-workshop comments and revisions. The mainfocus of the paper, however, is the workshop itself, demonstrating how to help studentsunderstand that effective writing and effective engineering practice are interconnected.ReferencesBerthouex, P. (1996). Honing the writing skills of engineers. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, 122(3), 107-110.Johnson, R. B., & Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (2004). Mixed methods research: A research paradigm whose time has come. Educational Researcher, 33(7), 14-26.

Conrad, S. (2015, June), Dispelling Student Myths about Writing in Civil Engineering Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23890

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