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Faculty-practitioner Collaboration for Improving Civil Engineering Students' Writing Skills

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Capstone and Collaborations in Civil Engineering

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

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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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William A Kitch P.E. Angelo State University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Kitch is Professor and Chair of the Civil Engineering Department at Angelo State University. Before starting his academic career he spent 24 years as a practicing engineer in both the public and private sector. He is a registered professional engineer in both Colorado and California.

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Tori Rhoulac Smith Howard University

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Dr. Tori Rhoulac Smith is the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the College of Engineering, Architecture, and Computer Sciences at Howard University in Washington, DC. In this role, she works to continuously improve the undergraduate student experience and oversees recruitment, admission and orientation, retention, advising, career development, and academic support programs. Dr. Rhoulac Smith earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in civil engineering from North Carolina State University and a B.S. degree in civil engineering from Howard University.

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Kenneth W. Lamb P.E. Ph.D California State Polytechnic University - Pomona

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Kenneth is an Assistant Professor at Cal Poly Pomona. Kenneth is a licensed Professional Engineer in Nevada with experience working on a variety of water, storm water, and waster water systems projects. He holds degrees from the University of Nevada Las Vegas (BSCE and PhD) and from Norwich University (MCE).

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Timothy James Pfeiffer P.E. Foundation Engineering, Inc.

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Mr. Pfeiffer is a senior engineer and manager at Foundation Engineering in Portland, Oregon.

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Most civil engineering programs are responsive to practitioners' concerns for technical skills and content, but few programs respond as directly to practitioners' concern for the development of writing skills. Surveys of employers and alumni consistently emphasize the need for stronger writing skills for engineering practice,1,2 but most programs still rely on technical writing or composition courses, which seldom address the specific writing needs of practicing engineers. In this paper, we present a new, direct approach for writing skill development within civil engineering courses. We describe a project in which collaboration between practitioners and faculty has been used to identify and address students' greatest writing needs. The paper provides an overview of the project and assessment results (which have been reported previously) 3,4 and then focuses on important ways that the collaboration with engineering practitioners has shaped the project.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project has involved research and materials development at four universities. First, student writing weaknesses were identified through an analysis of student and practitioner writing. Then teaching materials were developed to address the weaknesses. The materials cover content, organization, word choice, and grammar. Changes in student writing are assessed with three measures: analysis of targeted language features, holistic evaluation of papers' effectiveness, and surveys of students' perceptions of their learning. Results have been positive for discrete language features and more global concerns such as organization.

Engineering practitioners have contributed to the project in four major ways. They provide copies of effective documents from their workplaces, participate in interviews about writing, comment on drafts of teaching materials, and conduct holistic evaluations of student writing samples. In this paper, we describe and exemplify how these contributions have shaped the teaching materials. For example, through the practitioner contributions, we recognized the need for materials to integrate engineering concerns with grammar and word choice, rather than addressing writing as a stylistic concern separate from engineering; in the materials, even issues such as sentence structure are tied to the content and practice of engineering. Through the practitioner contributions we were also able to identify the typical standards for grammar in industry practice – standards which far exceed those in most student writing. Certain differences in grammar choices between industry and academic contexts were also evident (such as more active voice in industry and more passive voice in academia), and practitioners’ explanations for those differences are included in the materials. Although many of the concerns raised by practitioners are shared by faculty, it was only the collaboration with practitioners that brought them to the forefront.

The paper includes descriptions of how the writing materials have been incorporated into engineering courses and the corresponding assessment data. It concludes with reflections on the learning of both faculty and practitioners from the collaboration process. The process can serve as a model for other programs, but we also share the new teaching materials, which are available for piloting in other programs.

1. Berthouex, P. (1996). Honing the writing skills of engineers. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, 122(3), 107-110. 2. Donnell, J., Aller, B., Alley, M., & Kedrowicz, A. (2011). Why industry says that engineering graduates have poor communication skills: What the literature says. Proceedings of the 2011 American Society for Engineering Education Conference and Exposition. 3. Anonymous. (2015). 4. Anonymous. (2014).

Conrad, S., & Kitch, W. A., & Smith, T. R., & Lamb, K. W., & Pfeiffer, T. J. (2016, June), Faculty-practitioner Collaboration for Improving Civil Engineering Students' Writing Skills Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26892

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