Classroom innovation strengthens mechanical engineering students' writing skills

Erin Cassidy Hendrick
March 05, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Strong communication skills have always been emphasized in the curriculum of the Department of Mechanical Engineering (ME) at Penn State. However, a new initiative is flipping the script — and strengthening student outcomes.

Michael Alley, associate teaching professor, teaches a section of engineering writing, which substitutes for the required technical writing course taught to engineering undergraduates by the English Department.

According to Alley, “While technical writing courses from English Departments are effective in teaching students how to write clearly, these courses do not challenge the students on the technical precision of their writing.”

“These technical writing skills are so important for engineers because you can be the smartest person in the world, but if you can’t convey your results or get your point across, your work is useless. So these experiences are really important.”

— Josh Rosato, senior studying mechanical engineering

In response, the ME department has embedded an engineering writing course within its required junior-level design course. Doing so fuses engineering and communications expertise for an experience that more closely resembles what the students will see as professionals. Perhaps what most distinguishes the course, though, is that mechanical engineering seniors who have previously excelled in the course serve as student mentors, thereby passing their skills and experience onto the next class of students.

Josh Rosato, a senior studying mechanical engineering, currently serves as a student mentor. “Technical writing is very different from what people typically think of as writing,” he explained.

Funded by the department, each senior supervises three to six students. In roundtable critique sessions, the mentor shares detailed feedback on each document, including a proposal, progress report and final report, of the juniors’ semester-long design project.

“These roundtable critique sessions are modeled after what often occurs in industry,” Alley said.

Since the engineering expertise needs to be portrayed precisely, the impact of ME students teaching their peers has proven to be very effective.

Rosato said, “Project wise, because everything the students are doing is heavily related to the mechanical engineering discipline, the mentors are able to help a lot more.”

An inherent weakness of the traditional technical writing course is that because students are taking a full course load, they struggle to fully develop an original technical project for their writing assignments. However, the mechanical engineering students in the new writing course already have a technical project that needs documenting.

“Our new approach is to experiment with weaving a required design course in with the engineering writing,” Alley said. By deepening the project experience to span multiple assignments, from proposal to progress report to final report, students also become better equipped with project management, a critical skill for a future engineering career.

First launched in the spring of 2018, the pilot program has now scaled to 80 students, with plans to reach 100. With the continued success of the course, Penn State mechanical engineers will be even further prepared for a productive career.

“These technical writing skills are so important for engineers because you can be the smartest person in the world, but if you can’t convey your results or get your point across, your work is useless,” Rosato said. “So these experiences are really important.”

Last Updated March 05, 2019