First-year engineering programs have increased in popularity over the past decade in engineering, primarily due to their success in introducing undergraduate engineering students to engineering experiences. Although the content and structure of these first-year engineering (FYE) courses vary from institution to institution, their purposes remain the same: To prepare engineering students for their engineering education experience, as well as future engineering positions. Popular content choices for a FYE course include engineering design, mathematics, design/programming software, and technical writing. Of all of these content areas listed above, technical writing is arguably one of the more difficult. Many students come into their collegiate engineering experience formally writing only for English classes, and have a hard time adjusting to writing technically when they are asked to write about engineering assignments, labs, or projects.
This paper will explore a FYE course that includes an 8 week-long project involving strong technical communication components. This course is the second in a FYE engineering sequence that emphasizes the importance of technical writing. In the first course of the FYE engineering sequence, students are taught to write either a lab report, memo, or abstract over labs that they complete on a weekly basis. In the second course of the sequence, students are exposed to different types of technical communication. To complement their research project, students are asked to read assigned journal articles related to the research project, as well as find journal articles of interest and present them to the class in groups. The final deliverables of their projects include a grant proposal, a journal article, a technical presentation and a research poster. The goal of this course is to expand students’ exposure to and experience with technical writing beyond lab reports and abstracts, and push them to engage with other forms of communicating technical research through presentations, posters, journal articles, and research proposals.
FYE students elect to take the research project-based course as the second in the sequence, as opposed to a robotics design course. These students frequently choose this course because they are interested in engineering research, or learning what engineering research looks like at the collegiate level. The learning objectives of the course include that students should gain experience in designing experiments, performing hands-on research work, and presenting their findings in a meaningful way. It also incorporates heavy design components, the engineering design process, and teamwork. The selected forms of technical writing align with these objectives and encompass real-world standards and restrictions to give students realistic experience should they choose to present at a conference, to apply for research funding, or to publish their work throughout their academic careers.
The selected forms of technical communication also align with the research timelines of the projects. One project timeline captures developing experimental procedures through performing statistical analysis. The journal article and technical talk provide students with experience on presenting meaningful findings using statistics on a stage that is realistic to the research space. The second project is more theoretical and in the early phases of design. The grant proposal provides students with an avenue to provide justification as to why their projects should receive future funding for research progression. The longevity of the projects, in direct contrast to their first semester experiences, allow for these documents and presentations to culminate research progress throughout the semester using a realistic research scenario. This is a skill that is also directly transferable to later research experiences.
By exposing students to research-related technical writing such as proposals and journal articles, students gain an expanded understanding and appreciation for the technical communication and are better prepared for their own engineering research experiences, should they choose to have them.
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