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Quantitative Assessment of Writing Register in Engineering Technology Students

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Assessment in Multidisciplinary Learning Environment

Tagged Division

Multidisciplinary Engineering

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Paper Authors


David Clippinger Pennsylvania State University, Behrend College

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Dr. David Clippinger is a faculty member in Mechanical Engineering Technology at the Pennsylvania State University, Erie--the Behrend College. His interests are ship dynamics, measurement & instrumentation, and assessment, especially of student writing.

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Steven Nozaki Pennsylvania State University, Behrend College Orcid 16x16

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Ph.D. Engineering Education - The Ohio State University

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Ruth Camille Pflueger Pennsylvania State University, Behrend College Orcid 16x16

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Ruth Pflueger has been the director of the Learning Resource Center at Penn State Behrend for 20 years, where she is also an affiliate instructor of English. She has been involved in a number of federal grants, including two NSF STEM grants, an EU-Atlantis grant, and is currently PI for an NSF IUSE-EHR collaborative grant.

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The importance of effective writing for engineering and engineering technology students is well known. However, multiple barriers exist for such students seeking to develop these skills. Among these is that engineering writing possesses its own register or “written dialect.” This register not only sets STEM writing apart from that of other disciplines, but also distinguishes one discipline from another: Academic Electrical Engineering writing has a distinct style, diction, development, and voice that is different from that of Academic Mechanical Engineering writing, and both of these are different from Academic Physics writing. These differences were quantitatively studied by the authors in earlier works.

The present work will continue apply these same quantitative methods to student writing from a senior-level capstone design course in Mechanical Engineering Technology (MET). Specifically, the student writing samples will be assessed for their style by performing a quantitative study of the relative use of action verbs as described in Robert Irish’s Writing in Engineering, a Brief Guide (Oxford, 2015). Samples of student work will be analyzed for their relative use of active verbs, active conditionals, gerunds and infinitives, passive verbs, statements of condition, and participles, and the results compared with the same relative proportions of these verbs from peer-reviewed published works.

A similar method will be used to measure voice: the frequency and type of first-person pronouns will be measured in the student works, and again compared to the relative frequency of these same pronouns’ appearance in peer-reviewed published works. Development will also be measured quantitatively, with the space devoted to tables, figures, and equations compared to that devoted to prose. Lastly, diction will be assessed in a manner similar to that used for pronouns, except that the use of “hedging,” “boosting” and “attitude” words will be measured and their relative frequency compared between the two cohorts of writing samples.

Results to date illustrate an unexpected diversity of STEM registers, even among academics. For example, mechanical engineering academics were found to use hedging words (“almost,” “usually,” “possibly” etc.) at a rate nearly four times greater than structural engineers. Electrical Engineering academics used attitude words (“appropriately,” “preferably,” “understandably,”) at a rate eight times greater than their mechanical engineering counterparts. Personal pronouns were never used in any of the structural engineering samples reviewed, were very rarely used in mechanical engineering writing samples, but appeared in about two-thirds of student writing, and almost every example of electrical engineering academic writing.

The results will be tabulated to make the differences in register that appear between student and academic writing readily apparent. These results will then be incorporated into a tutor guide for Writing Center Tutors. This guide will discuss effective writing in general but will focus on the most prominent gaps that occur between student and academic writing. This will hopefully enable writing center tutors to more effectively assist MET students in becoming effective writers in their discipline. The measurement of the actual effectiveness of this student guide is identified as an extension.

Clippinger, D., & Nozaki, S., & Pflueger, R. C. (2021, July), Quantitative Assessment of Writing Register in Engineering Technology Students Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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