(455d) Technical Writing As a Tool to Promote Conceptual Understanding
AIChE Annual Meeting
Wednesday, October 19, 2011 - 9:45am to 10:10am
Chemical engineers are educated to become problem solvers. They are trained to solve complex equations to assess transport processes for materials and energy, determine the composition of a system in equilibrium, or specify the required size for a reactor. Unfortunately, this focus on quantitatively solving analytical problem sometimes leads to the erroneous perception that engineering simply consists of finding an equation and plugging in numbers. Students who think this way are usually unable to explain why they are solving a problem in a specific way or what concepts the equations are based on.
To address this issue we introduced technical writing as a component in two courses on Material and Energy Balances. A technical writing tutorial was offered in the first week of classes to help the students with the new challenges. Each homework assignment, quiz and exam contained questions that required written answers. For example, the students were asked to explain why cities dispense salt on the roads in winter and why the overall conversion in a recycle reactor exceeds the single pass conversion.
In addition to writing assignments and test questions, the students performed take-home experiments. The experiments were performed in groups, but every student had to submit a one-page report (not counting figures, photos etc.). All materials required for these experiments are available in a common supermarket. Specific experiments included:
- Nucleation of carbon dioxide bubbles in Diet Coke upon addition of Mentos
- Assessment of the heat of solution of baking soda in water
- Quantification of the heat transfer from hot water in different vessels to the environment
Including this focus on conceptual understanding lead to a considerable number of questions and involved discussions during lectures. The students were clearly trying to understand the material beyond finding a numeric answer for a given problem. In the end of the semester the students participated in surveys on their learning styles, preferences, and opinions of the writing assignments. The outcomes of this survey and how this survey correlates with their success on the technical writing assignments and in the class will be discussed.