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Experiential Learning and Communication: iFixit in the Technical Writing Classroom

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society Division Technical Session 9

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Alyson Grace Eggleston The Citadel

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Alyson G. Eggleston is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Fine Arts, and Communications at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, where she teaches STEM-focused technical writing and communication, writing-intensive courses for international students, and linguistics. She received her PhD from Purdue University in Linguistics, and she has a BA and MA in English with concentrations in TESOL and writing pedagogy from Youngstown State University. Her research and teaching interests are in technical and scientific writing pedagogy and the interaction of language and cognition. She is a member of Sigma Xi and ASEE.

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Robert J. Rabb P.E. The Citadel

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Robert Rabb is an associate professor and the Mechanical Engineering Program Director at The Citadel. He previously taught mechanical engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the United States Military Academy and his M.S.E. and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. His research and teaching interests are in mechatronics, regenerative power, and multidisciplinary engineering.

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Robust research in the cognitive and learning sciences show that experiential approaches to learning are superior for supporting long-term memory, problem-solving abilities, and learner confidence. Writing, too, has been shown in cognitive research to aid in achieving learning outcomes when used in targeted ways, such as in self-reflective inquiry, wherein students are asked to reflect on knowledge gaps or invited to connect old information and new. More than a cognitive support, writing and communication also have been identified by industry stakeholders as a key area for increased instructional attention and improvement. These research findings and industry values are further institutionalized through ABET student learning outcomes, particularly (g): “[demonstrate] an ability to communicate effectively.” However, conventional technical writing courses typically focus on writing to present complex information in a way that is easy to read and understand, and omit many forms of experiential learning. Armed with this research and disciplinary mandate, the Technical Writing and Communication course, developed to meet the needs of the School of Engineering at [Institution], has been recently revised to allow for more situated, industry-led, experiential learning opportunities. Results indicate that experiential learning contexts, supported by industry-informed writing tasks, serve to increase students’ observed and self-perceived written and verbal communication skills across a variety of contexts.

This paper reports on differences in communicative performance observed between two Technical Writing and Communication course designs: a control course, featuring a more traditional approach to technical writing and assignments, and an experimental course, which included a team-based electro-mechanical device repair and documentation project. The device repair and documentation project requires students to propose and report on deliverables to corporate representatives, produce user-oriented technical prose supported by detailed photography, and proceed with the project according to their own declared timelines to deliver user guides to iFixit. At completion, these user guides are published on the site and accessed by a growing network of global users. It is hypothesized that the experiential device repair and documentation project uniquely equips students in the experimental cohort with procedural approaches to technical writing that serve as incomparable supports when they are later tasked with larger, more open-ended writing tasks.

Quantitative and qualitative results are reported from anonymous, forced-choice style surveys, as well as two graded performance comparisons that were implemented identically across control and experimental cohorts. The first performance sampling evaluates the execution of professional written tasks and was completed early in the semester. The second performance sampling evaluated differences in execution of a summative research brief occurring later in the semester. Data collected from these two moments of the semester allow for a better reading of student performance gains, and results will guide future instructional design choices.

Eggleston, A. G., & Rabb, R. J. (2019, June), Experiential Learning and Communication: iFixit in the Technical Writing Classroom Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32793

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