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WIP: Online Tutorials to Help Undergraduates Bridge the Gap Between General Writing and Engineering Writing

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Promoting Technical Communication Skills

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Michael Alley Pennsylvania State University

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Michael Alley is a professor of teaching for engineering communications at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of The Craft of Scientific Writing (Springer, 2018) and The Craft of Scientific Presentations (Springer-Verlag, 2013). He is also founder of the popular websites Writing Lessons for Engineering and Science ( and the Assertion-Evidence Approach (

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Joanna K. Garner Old Dominion University

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Dr. Garner is Executive Director of The Center for Educational Partnerships at Old Dominion University, VA.

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Kaitlyn Pigeon Pennsylvania State University

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Kaitlyn Pigeon is a rising senior Industrial Engineering student at the Pennsylvania State University. She is also a Psychology minor. She is active as a mentor in the Women in Engineering Program and in the organization of Undergraduate Teaching and Research Experiences in Engineering (UTREE). Kaitlyn is also a Fundraising Captain for the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, THON. While at Penn State, she has also studied engineering design in Singapore and is looking forward to her second summer internship.

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The demands of engineering writing are much different from those of general writing, which students study from grade school through first-year composition. First, the content of engineering writing is both more specific and more complex [1]. As a second difference, not only do the types of audiences vary more in engineering but so does the audience’s level of knowledge about the content. Yet a third difference is that the expected level of precision in engineering writing is much higher [2]. Still a fourth difference is that the formats for engineering reports, which call for writing in sections and for incorporating illustrations and equations, are much more detailed than the double-space essays of first-year composition. Because many engineering students do not take a technical writing course until their junior or senior year, a gap exists between what undergraduates have learned to do in general writing courses and what those students are expected to produce in design courses and laboratory courses. While some engineering colleges such as the University of Michigan have bridged the gap with instruction about engineering writing in first-year design, a few such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison have done so with first-year English [4]. Still, a third group of schools such as Purdue have done so using an integration of these courses [5]. Unfortunately, many other engineering colleges have not bridged the gap in the first year. For instance, at ________________, first-year design is not an option for teaching engineering writing because this course spans only one semester course and has no room for another major instructional topic. In addition, at this same institution, first-year composition is not an option because the English Department is adamant about having that course’s scope remain on general writing. Although a technical writing course in the junior or senior year should theoretically bridge the gap, not understanding the differences between general writing and engineering writing poses problems for engineering students who have yet taken technical writing. For instance, not understanding the organization of an engineering report can significantly pull down a report’s grade and lead students to assume that they are inherently weak at engineering writing [6]. Another problem is that engineering students who have not bridged the gap between general writing and engineering writing are at a disadvantage when writing emails and reports during a summer internship. To bridge this gap, we have created an online resource [7] that teaches students the essential differences between general writing and the writing done by engineers. At the heart of the resource are two web pages—one on writing reports and the other on writing professional emails. Each page consists of a series of short films that provide the essential differences between the two types of writing and a quiz to ensure comprehension of the films. In addition, students have links to model documents, while faculty have links to lesson plans. Using an NSF I-Corps approach [8], which is an educational version of how to build a start-up company [9], we have developed our web resource over the past six months. Specifically, we have tested value propositions through customer interviews of faculty and students in first-year courses in which the resource has been piloted. Using the results of those customer interviews, we have revised our two web pages. This paper presents the following highlights of this effort: (1) our customer discoveries about the gap between general writing and engineering writing, (2) the corresponding pivots that we made in the online resource to respond to those discoveries, and (3) the website usage statistics that show the effects of making those pivots.


1. Richard House, Richard Layton, Jessica Livingston, and Seam Moseley (2017). The Engineering Communication Manual. Oxford: Oxford Press. 2. Susan Conrad, “A Comparison of Practitioner and Student Writing in Civil Engineering,” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 106, no. 2 (April 2017), pp. 191-217. 3. Sheffield, S., & Fowler, R., & Alford, L. K., & Snyder, K. (2017, June), “Implementing a Single Holistic Rubric to Address Both Communication and Technical Criteria in a First Year Design-Build-Test-Communicate Class. paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 4. EPD 155: Basic Communication, (Madison, Wisconsin: University f Wisconsin, Madison, 2019). 5. Chesley, A., & Mentzer, N., & Jackson, A., & Laux, D., & Renner, M. (2016, June), “Integrating Technology, English, and Communication Courses for First-Year Technology Students,” paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25414 6. S. A. Ambrose, M. W. Bridges, M. DiPietro, M. C. Lovett, and M. K. Norman, “What Factors Motivate Students to Learn,” How Learning Works (New York: Wiley, 2010), pp. 66-90. 7. “Writing Lessons for Engineering and Science,” ____________________________________ ______________________________________________________. 8. Smith, K. A., & McKenna, A. F., & Chavela Guerra, R. C., & Korte, R., & Swan, C. (2016, June), “Innovation Corps for Learning (I-Corps™ L): Assessing the Potential for Sustainable Scalability of Educational Innovations,” paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25702. 9. Steve Blank and Bob Dorf, The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company (Pescadero, California: K&S Ranch, Inc., 2012).

Alley, M., & Garner, J. K., & Pigeon, K. (2020, June), WIP: Online Tutorials to Help Undergraduates Bridge the Gap Between General Writing and Engineering Writing Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35563

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