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Explaining The Numbers: Using Qualitative Data To Enhance Communication Instruction In The Engineering Classroom

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

ERM Potpourri

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.625.1 - 11.625.26



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Paper Authors


Katie Sullivan University of Utah

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Katie Sullivan is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. She has been working as a communication consultant in the Center for Engineering Leadership for two years.

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April Kedrowicz University of Utah

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Dr. April Kedrowicz is the Director of the Center for Engineering Leadership at the University of Utah. Current research interests include communication across the curriculum and in the disciplines, interdisciplinary collaboration, and disciplines as cultures.

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

Explaining the Numbers: Using Qualitative Data to Enhance Communication Instruction in the Engineering Classroom


In 1959, C.P. Snow articulated the notion of “the two cultures,” specifically, the bifurcation between the sciences and humanities and the impact this had on solving the world’s problems. Disciplinary cultures are evidenced through rites, norms, language, and customs. In particular, disciplines can be characterized by their theoretical and methodological worldviews. While sciences like engineering are positivist with respect to research orientation, humanities, and in particular, communication, is multifaceted including the post-positivist, interpretive, critical, and postmodern research orientations. This difference can present a paradox when representatives from engineering (science) and communication (humanities) work together to improve and assess engineering education

The Center for Engineering Leadership at the University of Utah represents the mixing of disciplinary cultures, such that representatives from the College of Engineering and the College of Humanities work together in and out of the classroom. This college-wide program exists to improve undergraduate engineering education through equipping students with the requisite professional skills to be effective in the workplace, thus responding to the call put forth by ABET’s EC 2000. Our integrated approach embeds speaking, writing, and teamwork instruction within the engineering curriculum. Curricular advancements such as these must be continually assessed both at the macro and micro level. Although recent claims have been made for the use of qualitative inquiry in assessment practices, we argue that qualitative research is still underutilized as a course assessment tool in engineering classrooms.

The authors analyzed and compared both qualitative and quantitative course evaluation data from a mechanical engineering course in order to demonstrate that qualitative data gathering techniques facilitate a deeper and broader understanding of students’ experiences in the classroom. A comparison of the results shows how students’ qualitative explanations of their experiences both validates and enhances the numerical ranking of satisfaction with multiple course attributes. A deeper understanding of students’ experiences gives educators the opportunity to make important curricular changes. This research speaks to issues of multi- method assessment tools in engineering, as well as the broader implications of students’ experiences with writing, speaking and teamwork instruction.


With the advent of ABET’s EC 2000, much focus has been placed on equipping engineering students with the necessary professional skills to be effective in the workplace.1-3 As such, engineering educators highlight unique approaches to teaching students how to write (and speak) effectively. 4-6 A few key themes characterize this research. First, most attempts to train students in “technical communication” have prioritized writing over speaking. Second, most approaches to communication skill development include an emphasis on either integrating writing and speaking into an introductory and/or capstone engineering course or offering a Technical Communication course specifically for engineering students. Third, research in this area often

Sullivan, K., & Kedrowicz, A. (2006, June), Explaining The Numbers: Using Qualitative Data To Enhance Communication Instruction In The Engineering Classroom Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--344

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