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Integrating Communications Instruction Into Engineering Curricula: A Writing Center Approach

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1999 Annual Conference


Charlotte, North Carolina

Publication Date

June 20, 1999

Start Date

June 20, 1999

End Date

June 23, 1999



Page Count


Page Numbers

4.323.1 - 4.323.7

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Paper Authors

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Tom Gasque Smith

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Deanna E. Ramey

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

Session 3261

Integrating Communications Instruction into Engineering Curricula: A Writing Center Approach

Tom Gasque Smith, Deanna E. Ramey University of South Carolina

I. Introduction

ABET criteria call for improved communications instruction throughout the engineering curriculum. What such improvement looks like varies from school to school and, indeed, from class to class. Such variation is linked to the histories and cultures of individual schools, departments and professors. At first inspection, this variation seems to present a problem to engineering colleges seeking to integrate communications instruction into their curricula. But the writing center model, long a fixture at most colleges, offers a flexible program that meets the needs addressed in ABET criteria while avoiding cookie-cutting demands from on high about the shape of communications instruction in every course.

Because of the humanities backgrounds of most writing center staffs, involving them in the activities of an engineering college presents interesting opportunities and problems. To make the collaboration effective, it is useful to find a common language to discuss communications instruction. Three areas of research on writing center programs find interesting parallels in engineering: the idea of consultancy as collaborative learning, the idea that knowledge is socially constructed, and a commitment to student responsibility for their learning. These prominent goals of writing center work are consistent with at least three of ABET’s A-K criteria: d. an ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams; g. an ability to communicate effectively; and i. a recognition of the need for and an ability to engage in life-long learning.

This paper outlines the basic structure of the Professional Communications Center program at the University of South Carolina College of Engineering. This structure includes 1) communications instruction in-class and in one-on-one consultation with students, 2) consultations with faculty looking for new ways to integrate communications instruction into their syllabi, and 3) writing and producing a variety of publications for the College.

II. Background: Writing Center Theory Meets Engineering

An essay well-known among students of composition and rhetoric is Stephen North’s “The Idea of a Writing Center.”1 In this essay, North identified some of the then crucial characteristics of writing centers in a variety of institutions. While acknowledging the general function of writing centers on campuses as sites where students could go to get extra-classroom assistance with their writing, North also posed an idea that may seem strange to those unfamiliar with writing centers. He said that those who work in them are interested in better writers—not better writing. This opposition, hovering between paradox and tautology, remains a central idea in most writing centers and is interpreted to mean that the centers emphasize teaching the processes of improving writing rather than simply improving the texts students bring to the center.

Smith, T. G., & Ramey, D. E. (1999, June), Integrating Communications Instruction Into Engineering Curricula: A Writing Center Approach Paper presented at 1999 Annual Conference, Charlotte, North Carolina.

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