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Project aims to improve engineering students' writing

6/20/2016 11:56:26 AM

Better writing skills among engineering students at Illinois is the goal of a year-long study by a team of University of Illinois researchers led by CEE Research Assistant Professor Julie Zilles. The team is composed of both engineering and writing faculty and is sponsored by a grant from the College of Engineering. They will study the way engineering students are currently taught technical writing across the College, collect best-practice methods and resources, and synthesize their findings into a set of recommendations.

Writing is critical for practicing engineers according to feedback from alumni and employers, said CEE Professor John Popovics, who teaches a 300-level course with a strong writing component and is a co-investigator on this project. The course focuses primarily on technical and scientific writing but currently is required of only some, not all, CEE students. Many students dread the writing workload so much they wait until their senior year to take the course, negating any benefit they might realize from improving their writing earlier in their education, he said.

“Writing comes hard to them, either because English is their second language, or they’re native English speakers but writing is their second language,” Popovics said.

The need has been so widely perceived that the group’s plan has met with resounding support from across the college, Zilles said.

“The response was completely overwhelming,” she said. “We have people committed to participating in the project from every department in engineering.”

The team welcomes feedback from alumni about the importance of writing in their profession and about any helpful resources of which they may be aware, Zilles said. Those with input may contact Zilles directly.

“We hope to build a collection of best practices and resources so that the people who do want to teach writing in a class can do so more effectively and efficiently,” Zilles said.

In addition to Zilles and Popovics, those involved on the core team are Professor S. Lance Cooper, Associate Head for Graduate Programs in Illinois’ Department of Physics; Department of Physics Instructor Celia M. Elliott; Professor Paul A. Prior of Illinois’ Department of English and the Center for Writing Studies; and Nicole Turnipseed, a graduate student in the Department of English and the Center for Writing Studies.

This work is being supported by a grant from the Strategic Instructional Innovations Program, part of the College of Engineering’s Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education.

Image: istockphoto.com/Hong Li