The State-of-the-Art Writing Project: A capstone writing project for engineering students

Like many institutions, Lafayette College takes a “writing across the curriculum” approach to help students develop their writing skills. As part of the writing requirement, all students are required to take a writing course in their major that addresses the learning outcome, “identify and apply the discourse conventions of a chosen academic discipline or field (including conventions of genre, format, citation, structure, and vocabulary).” A few years ago, I agreed to develop and teach a new course to address this writing outcome for seniors who would soon graduate with a degree in civil engineering.

I felt reasonably prepared to take on the development and teaching of this new course because I had taught writing to students in a first-year seminar course I had been offering for a few years and because, over the past 30+ years as a faculty member, I have done a lot of writing. But while I felt prepared, the reality of teaching the course that first semester showed me that my preparation was not aligned with what the students needed.

During that first semester, the major writing project for students in the course was a full draft of a literature review paper in the style of a submission to a technical journal of their choice. However, I quickly learned that the project was too ambitious for the students’ writing capabilities. While a few students were able to meet the project’s goals, most students simply didn’t have the writing tools or experience to complete the project successfully.

During that first offering of the course, I learned that the majority of students in the course struggled with skills they needed to research an engineering topic and to write well for a technical audience. These skills included:

  • recognizing the time required to write a quality document,
  • finding recent, quality, technical publications on a topic,
  • distinguishing primary resources from secondary resources,
  • reading and summarizing technical papers,
  • organizing sources,
  • citing sources,
  • understanding submissions guidelines, and
  • revising writing to address the needs of a technical audience.

Modifying the major writing project for the course to something that would allow the students to meet the writing outcomes has taken time. I’ve now taught the course several times and I’ve arrived at a project that the students and myself find both challenging and engaging.

Students in the course now write a state-of-the-art paper on a topic of their choice in the format of a draft submission for a hypothetical American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) conference ( ASCE defines a state-of-the-art paper as a paper that includes a “review of the most recent and relevant studies” on a topic as well as discussing the importance of the topic to the field. The goal of the paper is to leave the reader feeling as though they are up to date on the most recent research that has been conducted on the topic.

The students start work on this project in the third week of a 14-week semester. While the course covers a range of topics related to professionalism in engineering, the writing component of the course follows the schedule below:

  • Week 3: introduction to writing project and ASCE conference publication requirements; topic selection
  • Week 4: Zotero workshop, distinguishing primary from secondary sources/ finding primary sources
  • Week 5: Peer review of initial reference lists; reading and summarizing technical papers
  • Week 6 and 7: Writing and submitting summaries of primary research papers; individual meetings with the instructor to discuss progress on the project
  • Week 8: In-class writing workshop on drafting the background and research review sections of the paper
  • Week 9: In-class writing workshop on revising the background and research review sections of the paper
  • Week 10: In-class peer reviews of background and research review sections
  • Week 11: In-class writing workshop on drafting the abstract, introduction, and discussion/conclusion; discussion regarding formatting for the ASCE conference submission requirements
  • Week 12: individuation meetings with the instructor to discuss the project
  • Week 13: peer review of full drafts of the paper
  • Week 14: submission of paper

This schedule helps to scaffold students’ work on their papers and provides multiple opportunities for in-class and one-on-one discussions with the instructor related to the writing project.

Last fall was the second time that I had students complete this project. While some students found the project to be a significant challenge, all of the students completed the project on time and achieved the learning outcomes associated with the writing component of the course. Students’ comments in the final evaluations for the course provided evidence that completing the project provided the students with tools and strategies they will use in future writing projects and an increased sense of confidence in their abilities to take on and complete large writing projects.

As an instructor, I also found the project to be satisfying. The structure of the course provided me with many opportunities to give each student formative feedback on their work and I am proud of the quality of their final papers.

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