Asee peer logo

Using Undergraduate Mentors to Scale the Teaching of Engineering Writing

Download Paper |


2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Undergraduate Peer Educators: Mentoring, Observing, Learning

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Tagged Topic

ASEE Board of Directors

Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Michael Alley Pennsylvania State University, University Park

visit author page

Michael Alley is an associate professor of engineering communication at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of The Craft of Scientific Writing (Springer, 2018) and The Craft of Scientific Presentations (Springer, 2013). He also is the founder for the popular engineering communication websites: the Assertion-Evidence Approach ( and the Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science (

visit author page

Download Paper |


Many engineering colleges have standalone courses to teach writing to engineering undergraduates. Many of these courses reside in Departments of English. For example, such a course with multiple instructors teaching several sections each semester can be found in the English Department at Rose-Hulman [1]. In other colleges, the standalone courses reside in the college of engineering itself—a prominent example occurs at the University of Wisconsin – Madison [2]. Still, in other colleges, the courses reside in the engineering departments. An example here would be the standalone technical communication courses in the Chemical Engineering Department, the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, and the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Texas – Austin [3]. Finally, rather than using a standalone course to teach writing, a number of engineering departments try to interweave the teaching of writing into a sequence of engineering courses. Such a course sequence occurs in the Mechanical Engineering Department of Virginia Tech [4]. However, with recent increases in engineering undergraduate enrollments [5], many such courses are stretched. Faculty are asked to teach greater loads, often without additional resources. One such example is XXXXXXXX, a large land-grant institution, in which the English Department has historically taught engineering undergraduates in a required course. Originally listed at the sophomore level, this course has fallen behind in teaching engineering students at that level. Currently, most engineering students cannot find a seat in the course until their senior year. For this reason, engineering departments in the College have been forced to allow students who have not taken the technical writing course to take upper-level laboratory and design courses for which the technical writing course had been required. Even more of a problem, many engineering students have engineering internships and co-op experiences without having taken the writing course, even though the companies expect those students to write and even though many interns from other engineering colleges have had the experience of such a course. To address this situation, the Mechanical Engineering Department at XXXXXXXX has piloted an engineering writing course that connects with a large junior-level design course. What distinguishes this course is that it uses more than ten undergraduate mentors to assist in the critiquing and grading. These undergraduates have excelled in both the junior-level design course and in the writing course itself, which an engineering faculty member with a communication background teaches. While other courses such as engineering department courses at the University of Texas – Austin [3] and the sequence of engineering courses at Virginia Tech [4] have used graduate students, no other courses to our knowledge have used undergraduate mentors at this scale. Using undergraduates as opposed to graduate students have two advantages: (1) overall much lower cost to the department; and (2) the familiar of the undergraduates with the junior-level design course from which the assignments arise. In addition, the undergraduate mentors not only earn money to help offset the increasing costs of tuition [6], but also gain valuable editing experience to place on their résumés. Theoretically, because the mentors are deeply familiar with the technical content, this mentor-based course offers the advantage that students receive feedback not only on the clarity of the writing, but also on the precision. In addition, given the large number of mentors, the course uses the Iowa Writers’ Workshop model for critiquing [7], in which four to six students submit drafts two days in advance to a roundtable of six critics headed by a student mentor. Moreover, the structure has spawned two online writing exercises that provide individual feedback on writing at the paragraph level. Incorporated by two other engineering courses with more than 200 students, these online exercises allow the mentors to earn additional funds. This semester, in a pilot offering to determine whether the course will work, the course accommodates only 42 students. However, in the next semester, the course will accommodate 84 students. Moreover, provided that this scaling of the course in the spring semester succeeds, the plan is for the fall 2018 course to accommodate more than 100 students. This work-in-progress paper describes the structure of this course, the division of duties between the student mentors and the faculty member, the training of the mentors, and the two features of the course: the online exercises that have scaled to large engineering courses and the critiquing sessions modeled after the Iowa Writers Workshop. In addition, the study presents preliminary findings from course surveys on the successes and challenges that the course has experienced. If successful, this course would present an alternative course structure for teaching writing in large engineering departments.


1. House, R., Watt, A., & Williams, J. (2007, June), “Assessing The Impact of Pen Based Computing on Students’ Peer Review Strategies Using the Peer Review Comment Inventory.” Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 2. Nicometo, C., Anderson, K., Nathans-Kelly, T., Courter, S., & McGlamery, T. (2010, June), “More Than Just Engineers” How Engineers Define and Value Communication Skills on the Job.” Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 3. Moore, C., Randall, D., & Hart, H. (2009, June), “The Big Picture: Using the Unforeseen to Teach Critical Thinking.” Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 4. Alley, M., Dancey, C., & Vick, L. (2005, April), “The Interweaving of Technical Communication Throughout the Curriculum of a Large Mechanical Engineering Department.” Paper presented at the 2005 Southeast Regional ASEE Conference, Chattanooga, Tennessee. 5. Yoder, B. L. (2017), “Engineering by the Numbers.” American Society of Engineering Education. 6. Boyington. B. (2017, September), “See 20 Years of Tuition Growth at National Universities.” U.S. News & World Report, 7. Wilbers, S. (1980), The Iowa Writers Workshop: Origins, Emergence, & Growth. University of Iowa Press.

Alley, M. (2018, June), Using Undergraduate Mentors to Scale the Teaching of Engineering Writing Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--31216

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2018 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015