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Embedding Technical Writing Into Mechanical Engineering Curriculum: Tools for Immediate Feedback on Student Performance

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Engineering Communication II: Curricular Practices, Integrations, and Collaborations

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Mary M. McCall University of Detroit Mercy

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I have taught Technical Writing and Business Communication at the university and community college level for more than 30 years. My current focus at Detroit Mercy is the Embedded Technical Writing Program for Mechanical Engineering, now in its sixth year. Other work includes reference book and fiction publishing, communication consulting with business and industry, and writing, employee training, and developing marketing strategies for non-profit and arts organizations.

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Nassif E. Rayess University of Detroit Mercy

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Nassif Rayess is Professor and Chair of Mechanical Engineering at University of Detroit Mercy. He was part of the efforts to introduce entrepreneurially minded learning to the University as part of the KEEN Network and Engineering Unleashed. He is also directly involved in the curricular elements of the co-op program at the University, and teaches the professional development courses that bookends the co-op semesters. He received his Ph.D. from Wayne State University and joined Detroit Mercy in 2001.

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Embedding Technical Writing into Mechanical Engineering Curriculum: A Work in Progress

Background Mechanical Engineering students at XXXXX have traditionally fulfilled their technical writing requirement by taking a stand-alone, 15-week course, typically in the sophomore or junior year. The faculty reached the consensus that a single exposure to technical writing was not enough to sustain student skills nor improve them. Additionally, the Program added a co-op experience the summer between freshman and sophomore years, which meant that technical writing skills were critical earlier in the student’s education.

In Fall 2016, the Mechanical Engineering (ME) department began an embedded technical writing project that would give ME students sustained exposure to writing concepts and practice. From a single class in Fall 2016 (Basic CAD, taken in first semester of Freshman year), the project has grown to encompass four additional classes: Fundamentals of Engineering Design (second semester of freshman year); Intermediate CAD (first semester of sophomore year); Mechanics of Materials Lab (second semester of sophomore year); and Computer-Aided Engineering (second semester of junior year). All five classes are co-taught by engineering and technical writing instructors.

Program Goals One goal of the project was to jump start technical communication training for Engineering co-op students and graduating job candidates. Anecdotal evidence from co-op employers indicated they wanted co-op students with a better sense of the importance of workplace writing and the ability to produce documents commensurate with professional practice. Another goal was to respond to Engineering professors who expect to teach senior-level students who could develop team design reports with minimal supervision and revision.

The Approach The approach was to focus on rhetorical concepts rather than production of particular documents. Purpose and audience would be emphasized in each course, with the idea that when students (and employees) know why they are writing and for whom, their documents would help produce the organization’s desired outcome more effectively in terms of time, energy and expense. In addition to a basic audience model, students would learn about inter-generational and international audiences and their needs.

However, document preparation is only part of the engineer’s communication remit. Co-op surveys reveal that working in teams, presenting design concepts, and offering project updates are common tasks for engineers. To meet the needs of students and their co-op employers, communication concepts beyond writing were added to each of the embed classes.

Basic CAD, the first course in the sequence, emphasizes product design, instructions, and usability testing for a specific consumer audience. Fundamentals of Engineering focuses on teamwork to design a group product or service, professional presentations to an executive investor audience, and research to support a business decision. Intermediate CAD introduces the design report, which is writing for a subject matter expert, and product specifications for a group-designed product. Mechanics of Materials Lab focuses on team writing of formal testing reports for a technical executive. Computer-Aided Engineering broadens the use of research and graphics in the design report for a technical executive. Students are learning the theory and practice of technical communication in an applied engineering context.

Initial Feedback Instructors reported that students who have taken courses with an embedded technical writing element performed better in later classes. They reported that students were more confident in their writing and organizational abilities, understood the role of research, and were ready to use the tools available to them, including templates, student samples, instructor comments, and peer review feedback. Students themselves reported using skills they have learned at co-op jobs and believe that technical writing skills will help make them attractive job candidates. Program Assessment In Fall 2019, discussion began about a formal assessment to evaluate the impact of the Embedded Technical Writing Program. The assessment is timely as the first class to experience the embedded technical writing instructors graduated in Spring 2020.

The assessment is based on a series of data points: Assignment Grading Rubrics (2015 -pre-embed program and 2016-2020 embed program), Student Course Evaluations, “Engineering Learning Community: Mentorship Program Student Survey,” “Semester/Year E&S Co-op Student Questionnaire,” “Co-op Experiences – Summer/Year as told by students in Fall/Year ENGR 1021,” and performance in the Senior Capstone Design courses. In addition to the author’s participation, the assessment will involve the other engineering and technical writing instructors, co-op employers, a writing assessment expert from the English department, and survey experts from Organizational Psychology.

McCall, M. M., & Rayess, N. E. (2021, July), Embedding Technical Writing Into Mechanical Engineering Curriculum: Tools for Immediate Feedback on Student Performance Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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