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The Civil Engineering Writing Project
The Civil Engineering Writing Project

Writing is a task all civil engineers perform. Proposals, reports, memoranda, and other communications are circulated amongst colleagues, supervisors, and clients. These documents, when written well have been shown to promote infrastructure project success and safety, thus saving money and time. Preparing texts requires expert knowledge of the subject matter at hand, but what good is expertise if not communicated in a clear and concise manner?

In civil engineering and other communication-intensive fields, excellent writing skills are a must. The command of subject matter is not enough. Knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, and text organization helps writers express ideas without ambiguity. Writers need to tailor language to their specific audiences to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. And writers should be cognizant of areas where their writing could improve.

Civil engineering professionals, however, often find that graduates entering the field have not developed the writing skills they’ll need in the workplace. Dr. Susan Conrad of the Department of Applied Linguistics wants to address this issue by incorporating educational materials into existing engineering courses that will help students prepare for the writing they’ll do as professionals. The Civil Engineering Writing Project is a collaboration of students, academics, and practicing civil engineers that aims to do just that. Dr. Conrad is the project’s Principal Investigator.

“Often, people aren’t aware that the way they use language effects the impressions others have of them,” said Dr. Conrad. “As a field, applied linguistics looks at how language is used for communication. We can examine texts, identify problems, and develop ways to correct them.”

The project began in 2009 with a study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Dr. Conrad, along with Department of Civil Engineering faculty members Peter Dusicka, William Fish, Tom Szymoniak, and Scott Wells and collaborators at Iowa State University applied methods of   corpus linguistics to analyze the differences between student and practitioner writing. Having collected and investigated a large number of texts and interviews, Dr. Conrad was able to examine the organization, grammar, and vocabulary of documents and come to some conclusions.

The study’s findings show students tend to write sentences that contain multiple ideas, have grammatically complex structures, and lack information density. By a wide margin, practitioners, on the other hand, wrote sentences that were quite the opposite. The study also analyzed errors in grammar and punctuation. In student writing these mistakes were far more prevalent. Observations like these suggest student writing is less clear than that of practitioners.

"For the practitioners," said Conrad, "it is so important to convey concise, accurate information. For their readers to understand what they're communicating, the writing has to be precise and unambiguous."

In the fall of 2013, the project received a second round of funding. A four-year grant of $588,267 from the NSF was awarded to Dr. Conrad for her proposal "Preparing Students for Writing in Civil Engineering Practice: Research-based Materials Development and Assessment." In this phase of the project, Dr. Conrad will continue her research, develop materials to improve student writing skills within the context of established engineering courses and assess those materials along with collaborators from Cal Poly Pomona, Howard University, and Lawrence Tech.

Dr. Conrad is now developing materials to help civil engineering students gain precision writing skills. To date there are workshop materials for revising and editing for precision and clarity, tips and guides for preparing reports, and sections on grammar, punctuation, and proofreading all of which are available for students on the Materials for Students page of the project's website. According to Dr. Conrad, the plan is to develop teaching materials that can be integrated into engineering classes and then study the writing of students who have completed the coursework to see if there has been improvement. As a part of that plan, the researchers are also working on protocols instructors could use to develop and incorporate their own materials into the classroom.

"Our hope is that we'll be able to show that student writing does actually improve after they’ve been exposed to the materials in the civil engineering classes," Dr. Conrad said.

The materials have now been tested in multiple classes at four universities, and the student writing has shown improvement on all the quantitative and qualitative measures. The Civil Engineering Writing Project is showing that we can improve students' preparation for writing in the workplace and improve communications within the field.

More broadly, universities participating in the project might increase the percentage of workers from groups underrepresented in the civil engineering field by helping them develop the skills they'll need to communicate in the workplace. The implications of the project's success, however, may not be limited to civil engineering. It may be that the project could serve as a template for improving student writing in other fields. Dr. Conrad believes the program could be particularly useful in STEM education curriculums where there is often less emphasis on writing despite the essential role it plays in related professions.