(130b) Teaching Technical Writing to Chemical Engineers | AIChE

(130b) Teaching Technical Writing to Chemical Engineers

The ability to write clear and precise technical reports to a broad audience is a fundamental skill that Chemical Engineers develop while completing their undergraduate degrees. In a recent AIChE Education Division Survey, assessment of both oral and written communication is common to nearly all Chemical Engineering programs. Yet despite this ubiquity, and the perceived value of technical writing as a skill, it is often not considered a conventional engineering skill and this can affect the quality of writing instruction and thus student performance. At the University of Virginia (a public research institute), we noticed an increase in the number of 3rd year students entering our Unit Operations Lab who were unprepared to write technical engineering reports. A review of both our curriculum and teaching methods revealed a problem with how technical writing was being taught. First, a gap in writing instruction existed between 1st and 3rd year, and second, our own writing pedagogy was not well-matched with current best practice, nor was it designed to bridge this gap in instruction. Our solution was to re-design how we taught technical writing as part of our Unit Operations course, and to do so using existing resources. In this talk, I will present the design of our educational intervention, discuss the impact that the intervention had on the quality of student writing, and comment on the broader implications of our work for teaching the development of engineering skills in general.

Methods for teaching technical writing vary between institutions and are often a function of time and resource. A variety of formats (e.g. video tutorials, dedicated writing instructors) and methods (e.g. peer evaluation, instructor feedback, provision of sample reports) have been described for teaching writing, yet much of the literature focuses on 1st year Chemistry and Physics lab courses. Building upon this literature, we designed an intervention that targeted 3rd year Chemical Engineering students enrolled in a Unit Operations Lab. The intervention used a step-wise scaffold approach to teach the basic elements of writing a full technical report. Students wrote a series of brief individual memorandum that introduced these basic elements guided by detailed grading rubrics and documentation describing each report element. We hypothesized that this step-wise intervention would improve the overall quality of student technical writing and to test this hypothesis we compared the writing performance between two groups of students — a control group (n=30) (pre-intervention) and an experimental group (n=30) (post-intervention). An established writing assessment tool was used to analyze writing samples, and our results showed a statistically significant improvement in writing quality for the experimental group compared to the control group, as well as a statistically significant improvement in writing quality over time within the experimental group (i.e. pre/post mid-term). Our intervention improved the quality of students’ written assessments and did so without increasing the workload for student nor instructor alike. The use of memorandum (instead of full technical reports) decreased the overall grading burden on instructors and demonstrated that improvements to pedagogy do not necessarily need to be additive. This ‘less is more’ philosophy has significant implications for how engineering skills can be taught, and this presentation will also discuss how we are adapting skills-development instruction elsewhere in the department.