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With grant award, Loyola faculty launch interdisciplinary project to improve the instruction of technical writing to engineering students

| By Nick Alexopulos
Raenita Fenner and Peggy O’Neill Loyola University Maryland
Peggy O’Neill, Ph.D., professor of writing, and Raenita Fenner, Ph.D., assistant professor of engineering

Two Loyola University Maryland faculty members have been awarded a $22,687 collaborative grant from the Engineering Information Foundation to develop a curricular framework that will improve the instruction of technical writing to current and future undergraduate engineering students.

The project, “Integrating Writing into Engineering Labs: Developing Curriculum, Supporting Faculty, and Creating a Writing Fellows Program,” is led by co-principal investigators Raenita Fenner, Ph.D., assistant professor of engineering, and Peggy O’Neill, Ph.D., professor of writing. The results of their work will provide Loyola engineering faculty with comprehensive guidance for integrating technical writing into their lab courses and ensure Loyola engineering students receive technical writing instruction and support based on best practices for teaching technical writing.

“A primary reason for the poor development of writing skills among newly graduated engineers is a flawed assumption, reflected in programmatic design, that technical knowledge is distinct from technical writing and communication,” said Fenner. “That’s certainly not the case in the workplace.”

Academic engineering programs often fall short of preparing students to meet the soft skills expectations of industry managers and leaders, which could necessitate a need for post-hiring training. Clear communication through technical writing is at the top of the list.

Fenner and O’Neill endeavor to close this gap. The Loyola writing department currently offers a course in technical writing, but many engineering students are unable to fit the class into their schedule. As a result, non-comprehensive technical writing is taught by engineering faculty in laboratory classes.

“Learning to write is not an add-on skill to the learning of technical knowledge but should be fully integrated with the technical knowledge,” said O’Neill. “We’re further preparing our engineering students to succeed in a global economy. As practicing engineers, they will need to communicate effectively in writing to a wide range of audiences including clients, colleagues, regulators, and communities.”

Fenner applied for the grant and recruited O’Neill as a collaborator. Their project takes a three-pronged approach supported by interdisciplinary collaboration between the writing and engineering departments at Loyola. First, Fenner and O’Neill will create a framework of questions and activities that can be used in tandem with descriptive lab experiments to improve student learning and enhance facilitation of technical writing. Once that framework is finalized, writing department faculty will work with engineering faculty to develop more effective practices for the teaching of writing. Finally, they will develop a process for identifying and training a team of Engineering Writing Fellows to serve as technical writing tutors.

“The writing fellows will be junior and senior engineering students who have demonstrated academic success in writing and engineering,” said Fenner. “They will be trained in technical writing and coached on how to assist their peers.”

Fellows will offer tutoring sessions for students in the engineering department during the academic year. Prospective fellows will be invited to apply as early as spring 2017.

Loyola’s undergraduate engineering program offers Bachelor of Science degree concentrations in computer, electrical, materials, and mechanical engineering. The undergraduate writing program offers a writing major, an interdisciplinary writing major, and a writing minor, as well as enriching experiential learning and service learning opportunities through The Writing Center, publications, and internships.  

More information about the Engineering Information Foundation is available at eifgrants.org.

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