A 2010 survey by ASME  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 . 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).
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