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Embedding communication in an interdisciplinary project-based upper-level engineering design course

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Communication and Engineering Careers: Motivating Our Students

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.476.1 - 23.476.10



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Paper Authors


John C. Anderson Northwestern University

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John C. Anderson is a lecturer in the Segal Design Institute, where he also serves as Instructional Technology Coordinator. He has taught courses in composition and engineering communication at Northwestern for more than fifteen years. He received his B.A. from the University of Michigan's Residential College and his M.A. from Northwestern University.

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David W. Gatchell Northwestern University

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Dr. David W. Gatchell is a clinical associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at Northwestern University. In addition, he is Director of the Manufacturing and Design Engineering (MaDE) Program within the Segal Design Institute. Prior to joining NU, David was a research professor and instructor in the biomedical engineering department at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Boston University and A.B. in physics from Bowdoin College.

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Barbara Shwom Northwestern University

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Dr. Barbara Shwom is professor of Instruction in Writing at Northwestern University, where she holds appointments in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Kellogg School of Management. For the past fifteen years, Professor Shwom has been teaching communication to engineering students within the context of engineering design courses--both at the freshman level and the capstone level.

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Stacy Benjamin Segal Design Institute

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John Andrew Lake Segal Design Institute, Northwestern University

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Embedding communication in an interdisciplinary project-based upper-level engineering design courseIt is not surprising that students working on open-ended design projects in multidisciplinaryteams must communicate effectively in a wide range of contexts, to a number of differentaudiences. However, clear communication is more than a means to an end when students arelearning design. Our experience working with junior and senior students in a two-quarter project-based design course taught by teams of engineering and communication faculty suggests thatattention paid to learning better professional communication contributes directly to students’mastery and understanding of the design process. Because students are required to articulate theirideas so often and so early, they perceive gaps in their own reasoning and design work that theymust then address. When teams must communicate, critique, and then rework their own ideas, itleads to stronger, better thought-out designs.Because our students work in multidisciplinary teams on projects not tied to a single department,all of them must communicate with teammates from different majors, with their facultysupervisors, with industry contacts, and with clients. We find that the constant need for cross-disciplinary engagement creates frequent opportunities to coach students in better professionalcommunication, and that doing so opens up further opportunities to coach design.Our paper will describe these opportunities and the assignments we have crafted to takeadvantage of them. We will discuss our understanding of the relationships betweencommunication and design, and the ways in which our students’ work on specificcommunication assignments feeds directly into their design work. We will also discuss the rolesplayed by different internal and external audiences during the course, and their importance tostudents’ learning. We conclude that not only does better communication lead to better design,but that time spent coaching students to become better communicators also helps them developas designers and engineers.

Anderson, J. C., & Gatchell, D. W., & Shwom, B., & Benjamin, S., & Lake, J. A. (2013, June), Embedding communication in an interdisciplinary project-based upper-level engineering design course Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19490

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