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Preparing Students for Writing in Civil Engineering Practice

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Innovations in Teaching Transportation and Geotechnical Engineering

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.1060.1 - 25.1060.18



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Paper Authors


Susan Conrad Portland State University

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Susan Conrad is a professor of applied linguistics at Portland State University, where she teaches discourse analysis courses and collaborates with civil engineering faculty and local practitioners to study writing in civil engineering.

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


Tom Szymoniak Portland State University

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Tom Szymoniak is a Civil Engineer with 28 years of professional experience. He is currently a full-time instructor at Portland State University in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. His main area of focus is teaching the underclass students in the introductory courses of civil engineering. He is also co-teaching the project management and design courses for the seniors.

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Preparing Students for Writing in Civil Engineering PracticeAbstractThis paper describes a project designed to investigate characteristics of effective writing in civilengineering practice and improve writing instruction for students. The project analyzesdocuments written by civil engineering practitioners and compares them to papers written byundergraduate students in civil engineering classes. In this paper, we share three findings fromthe project and describe the ways in which we have applied the findings to teaching writingwithin civil engineering.For decades employers have encouraged civil engineering programs to pay more attention to thedevelopment of workplace writing skills (e.g. Berthouex, 1996). However, little research hasinvestigated the actual writing of civil engineering practitioners. Even well known studies, suchas Tenopir and King’s (2004) survey of communication practices or Winsor’s (1996, 2000)studies of writing development, have little to say about civil engineers. In contrast, the projectreported here has developed a collection of 350 documents from 10 firms in the local communityand 400 papers from students in 19 classes, covering a wide range of sub-fields and documenttypes. The project team includes applied linguists (who study language variation in differentcommunication contexts), engineering faculty, and engineers in local consulting firms. Thiscombination, along with interviews of students, brings multiple perspectives to the analyses:practitioner and academic, student and expert, engineer and language specialist.The project, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is based at a university wherevirtually all students want to work as practicing civil engineers; thus, practitioner writing is atarget for them. In this paper, we presents findings and classroom applications for the followingareas: (1) Organization (sections of papers and content organization within sections) (2) Sentence structure (use of simple sentences vs. sentences with complex structures) (3) Errors in grammar and mechanics.In each area, we briefly explain the research methodology, which includes quantitative andqualitative discourse analysis techniques from the field of applied linguistics. We present thefindings comparing practitioner and student writing, and discuss the differences in terms of theirimplications for civil engineering practice. The findings reveal specific writing differences, andalso expose a fundamentally different view of writing: students see it as a skill separate fromengineering while practitioners view it is an integrated part of engineering practice. For eacharea, we then share the steps we are taking to improve our writing instruction. We seek toincorporate writing development into the civil engineering courses so that – in addition todeveloping their writing skills – students better appreciate the central place of writing in civilengineering practice.ReferencesBerthouex, P. (1996). Honing the writing skills of engineers. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, 122(3), 107-110.Tenopir, C. and King, D. (2004). Communication Patterns of Engineers. Hoboken, NJ: IEEE Press/John Wiley & Sons.Winsor, D. (1996). Writing Like an Engineer: A Rhetorical Education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Winsor, D. (2000). Writing Power: Communication in an Engineering Center. Albany, NJ: State University of New York Press.

Conrad, S., & Pfeiffer, T. J., & Szymoniak, T. (2012, June), Preparing Students for Writing in Civil Engineering Practice Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21817

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