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Improving the Quality of Writing in a Capstone Engineering Design Course

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Innovations in Design within BME Curricula

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

22.843.1 - 22.843.11



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Paper Authors


Richard Goldberg University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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Richard Goldberg is a Research Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He is also the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Curriculum in Applied Sciences and Engineering, which houses the undergraduate BME program. He teaches several instrumentation courses. He also teaches a senior design class in a collaborative effort at UNC and Duke University. His primary interest is in rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology for people with disabilities.

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Kevin Caves Duke University

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Kevin Caves is an Instructor in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University and a Clinical Associate in the Department of Surgery at Duke University Medical Center. He coordinates Duke’s Assistive Technology Clinic that provides assistive technology services to people with disabilities. In addition to teaching and working with people with disabilities, he conducts research in the area of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology.

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Julie A. Reynolds Duke University

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Julie Reynolds is Director of the Certificate in Teaching College Biology, Assistant Professor of the Practice, and Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies in the biology department at Duke University. As a member of the biology faculty, she teaches writing-intensive science courses, including graduate courses in professional scientific writing and a course for undergraduate thesis writers. In addition to teaching, Julie has an active research program focused on pedagogies that promote science literacy.

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Improving the quality of writing in a capstone engineering design courseAbstractIn engineering programs, students develop skills in both technical design and writing, and a capstonedesign course gives students the opportunity to practice and refine these skills. In our course (acollaboration between faculty and students at Universities X and Y), students work in small teams todevelop custom devices for people with disabilities. At the end of the semester, we give the completeddevices to the client, free of charge. The final reports (written by each team) are not only an educationalexercise; we also use them to disseminate students’ work so that others can build similar devices forindividuals with disabilities. Additionally, many students submit their final reports to national designcompetitions. Therefore, it is important that these reports are well written and effectively explain thegoals, methods, and outcomes of the project.Our perception is that students devote considerable effort to the design and development of theirprojects, but that they are not as motivated to devote time and effort to writing. As a result, their finalreports often have significant problems with organization, clarity, and effectiveness. Therefore, werecently adopted several new strategies to improve the quality of student writing. Our goals were to 1)encourage students to work on their writing earlier and throughout the semester; 2) engage every studentin each team in the writing process; 3) use writing as a tool to improve students’ understanding of theclinical problem that they are addressing and how their design addresses their client’s needs; and 4)improve the quality of the final reports.To achieve these goals, we first designed a rubric that would help students understand the expectationsfor each section of the final report. We also imposed frequent deadlines for sections of the report to keepstudents engaged with their writing. To minimize the burden for the course faculty, we conductedseveral in-class “writer’s workshops” in which students learned what was expected for each section ofthe report. Based on these workshops, students then peer reviewed each other’s writing. Finally, weimplemented more efficient methods of providing feedback on writing, such as using digitally-recordedaudio feedback.As a result of these strategies, the quality of writing in the final reports has improved significantly.Feedback from students indicates that they appreciated the opportunity to work on their technicalwriting, although some felt that the peer review feedback was not helpful and that the writing processdistracted from their work on the projects. In the future, we plan to streamline the peer review processand to improve the evaluation rubric so that students provide more effective feedback to their peers. Ourgoal is to further improve the quality of writing, without compromising the students’ focus on the designand development of their projects.

Goldberg, R., & Caves, K., & Reynolds, J. A. (2011, June), Improving the Quality of Writing in a Capstone Engineering Design Course Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18124

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