Improving the quality of writing in a capstone engineering design course
In engineering programs, students develop skills in both technical design and writing, and a capstone design course gives students the opportunity to practice and refine these skills. In our course (a collaboration between faculty and students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University), students work in small teams to develop custom devices for people with disabilities. At the end of the semester, we give the completed devices to the client, free of charge. The final reports (written by each team) are not only an educational exercise; we also use them to disseminate students' work so that others can build similar devices for individuals with disabilities. Additionally, many students submit their final reports to national design competitions. Therefore, it is important that these reports are well written and effectively explain the goals, methods, and outcomes of the project. Historically we have seen that students devote considerable effort to the design and development of their projects, but that they are not as motivated to devote time and effort to writing. As a result, their final reports often have significant problems with organization, clarity, and effectiveness. Therefore, we recently adopted several new strategies to improve the quality of student writing. Our goals were to 1) encourage students to work on their writing earlier and throughout the semester; 2) engage every student in each team in the writing process; 3) use writing as a tool to improve students' understanding of the clinical problem that they are addressing and how their design addresses their client's needs; and 4) improve the quality of the final reports. To achieve these goals, we first designed a rubric that would help students understand the expectations for each section of the final report. We also imposed frequent deadlines for sections of the report to keep students engaged with their writing. To minimize the burden for the course faculty, we conducted several in-class "writer's workshops" in which students learned what was expected for each section of the report. Based on these workshops, students then peer reviewed each other's writing. Finally, we implemented more efficient methods of providing feedback on writing, such as using digitally-recorded audio feedback. As a result of these strategies, the quality of writing in the final reports has improved significantly. Feedback from students indicates that they appreciated the opportunity to work on their technical writing, although some felt that the peer review feedback was not helpful and that the writing process distracted from their work on the projects. In the future, we plan to streamline the peer review process and to refine the evaluation rubric so that students provide more effective feedback to their peers. Our goal is to further improve the quality of writing, without compromising the students' focus on the design and development of their projects. © 2011 American Society for Engineering Education.
Goldberg, R; Caves, K; Reynolds, JA
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