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Work in Progress: Embedding a Large Writing Course in Engineering Design - A New Model to Teach Technical Writing

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society Division Technical Session 9

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Michael Alley Pennsylvania State University, University Park

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Michael Alley is an associate professor of teaching 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 Guidelines for Engineering and Science ( and the Assertion-Evidence Approach (

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Stephanie Cutler Pennsylvania State University, University Park

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Stephanie Cutler has a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Virginia Tech. Her dissertation explored faculty adoption of research-based instructional strategies in the statics classroom. Currently, Dr. Cutler works as an assessment and instructional support specialist with the Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education at Penn State. She aids in the educational assessment of faculty-led projects while also supporting instructors to improve their teaching in the classroom. Previously, Dr. Cutler worked as the research specialist with the Rothwell Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence Worldwide Campus (CTLE - W) for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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Joseph C. Tise Pennsylvania State University, University Park

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Joseph Tise is a doctoral candidate in the Educational Psychology program at Penn State University. His research interests include self-regulated learning, measurement, and connecting educational research to practice.

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A 2010 survey by ASME [1] of 590 managers revealed that the writing skills of entry-level engineers are weak and need strengthening. In response, many engineering colleges have engineering undergraduates take a standalone writing course. No matter whether the course resides in an English department or in the college of engineering itself, the typical model of such courses calls for a single instructor (with expertise in writing) and 20 – 30 engineering students. Each instructor then teaches one to three sections per semester. To teach more than 100 students, the department or college then hires multiple instructors. This paper presents the second-year progress on the piloting and testing of an alternative approach. This alternative approach consists of the following: (1) a single instructor with expertise in writing and familiarity with engineering; (2) a cohort of senior mentors who have excelled in the writing course; (3) a large group of undergraduates (more than 60 students at present); and (4) either a co-requisite technical course (such as junior design) or a technical project to provide both the technical content and the audience, purpose, and occasion.

Using undergraduate mentors, as opposed to hiring more instructors, offers a number of potential advantages. The first is the familiarity that the undergraduate mentors have with the technical content—either the co-requisite course or the technical project. In other words, the mentors can comment not only on the clarity of the writing, but also on the precision. A second advantage is that having a cohort of mentors translate to a much higher mentor-to-student ratio. Such a ratio allows us, for example, to use an Iowa Writers’ Workshop approach to critiquing drafts. A third advantage is a more sustainable budget model for the department or college. Yet a fourth advantage is that the undergraduate mentors not only earn money to help offset the increasing costs of tuition, but also gain a valuable mentoring and editing experience to place on their résumés.

One potential disadvantage of this mentor model is the time required for the instructor to manage the mentors. For lower numbers of writing students, the time spent managing the mentors does not offset the time saved by having the mentors [2]. Another potential disadvantage is inconsistency in critiquing and grading by the mentors. Yet a third potential disadvantage is the need for mentoring and grading in the writing course coinciding with the tests and projects that the senior mentors have in their own courses. In such cases, the instructor faces a mountain of grading.

In this second year of the project, this work-in-progress paper addresses the following research questions: 1. How do engineering students rate the value of the mentors writing course rate in comparison with engineering students who take a traditional writing course? 2. How much value do former mentors, especially those who are now professionals, find that the experience of being a mentor was? 3. To allow other engineering students outside of mechanical engineering to take the mentors course, is it effective to have a corresponding technical project instead? To answer the first two questions, this paper relies on surveys of engineering students and professionals. To answer the third question, this paper relies on the experience of a proof-of-concept section of the course. In this proof-of-concept section, the technical project consists of research on hidden figures in science, technology engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for a STEM escape room. The STEM escape room serves the following purposes: recruits high students to the institution’s College of Engineering, reinforces principles of STEM got first- and second-year engineering students, and serves as a team-building exercise for upper-level engineering students. This paper concludes with best practices and lessons learned during this second year of piloting and testing the alternative approach.


1. ASME, “Vision 2030―Creating the Future of Mechanical Engineering Education,” American Society of Mechanical Engineers (New York: ASME, 2010). 2. __________________, “Work-in-Progress: Using Undergraduate Mentors to Scale the Teaching of Engineering Writing (Year 1), 2018 ASEE Annual Conference (Salt Lake City, Utah: American Society of Engineering Educators, June 2018).

Alley, M., & Cutler, S., & Tise, J. C. (2019, June), Work in Progress: Embedding a Large Writing Course in Engineering Design - A New Model to Teach Technical Writing Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33610

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: © 2019 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