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Preliminary Analysis of Student and Workplace Writing in Civil Engineering

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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

Why Industry Says that our Engineering Students Cannot Write

Tagged Divisions

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society and Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1169.1 - 22.1169.16



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Paper Authors


Susan Conrad Portland State University

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Susan Conrad is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University. Her research focuses on the ways that writers vary their vocabulary, grammar, and organization to meet the needs of different communication contexts. She collaborates with engineering practitioners, faculty, and students to investigate the writing of civil engineering.

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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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An Analysis of Student and Workplace Writing in Civil EngineeringThis project addresses a continuing problem in engineering education: the mismatch between thewriting skills of engineering program graduates and the demands of writing in the workplace.Previous research has typically focused on case studies of individuals (e.g. work by Winsor),individual courses and internships (e.g. work by Blakeslee), or surveys of the types ofcommunication engineers undertake (e.g. work by Tenopir and King). This project, funded inpart by the National Science Foundation’s Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEMprogram, takes a new approach to investigating the problem and devising instructional materials.It focuses first on the empirical analysis of language features in a large collection of texts writtenby numerous students and practitioners. Teaching materials are then based on the specificlanguage differences found between the student and practitioner texts. The project focuses oncivil engineering, but the approach can be applied to any field.The study is based at a university where virtually all the students seek work as civil engineerswhen they graduate; thus, practitioner writing is a target for them. The project is innovative inseveral ways. First, the project team incorporates applied linguists (who study languagevariation in different communication contexts), engineering faculty, and engineers in localconsulting firms. This combination, along with interviews of student writers, brings multipleperspectives to the interpretation of the analyses. Second, written documents are collected from alarge number of different students and practitioners (300+), covering several different genres ofwriting. The large number of texts allows investigation of both central tendencies and variationin language use by the student and practitioner groups. Third, the analysis uses computer-assisted techniques developed in applied linguistics so that more language features can bestudied in more texts than in previous work. Rhetorical functions, organization, grammaticalchoices, and vocabulary are all included.In this paper, after briefly describing the overall project, we focus on two research questions: (1) To what extent do students’ technical memos and reports express the same functions thatpractitioners express in their memos and reports? (Functions include things such as “providebackground context,” “state purpose of communication,” “report results of analysis,” etc.)(2) When students express the same functions as practitioners, do they make similargrammatical, vocabulary, and organizational choices? What are the impacts of any differences?The results cover differences in language features on all levels (organization, grammar andvocabulary). Far from being mere superficial differences, the student choices usually haveimportant unintended consequences. For example, their choice of verbs for reporting results andtheir use of passive voice rather than first person pronouns for describing methods andassumptions often unintentionally convey a level of certainty that professionals avoid for reasonsof professional liability. We also discuss the likely reasons for the students’ ineffective choices(e.g. instructors’ global rules, such as “avoid using ‘I’ and ‘we’,” which are counter topractitioner writing; students’ lack of revising of their initial drafts; and numerous others).Suggestions are made for writing instruction based on the research, but the findings andinterpretation of the language analysis are the focus of the research presented here.

Conrad, S., & Pfeiffer, T. J. (2011, June), Preliminary Analysis of Student and Workplace Writing in Civil Engineering Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18801

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