Engineers do not need to know how to write. This statement expresses a common belief amongst engineering undergraduate students, which is often compounded by a resistance to communication practice. It is contrary to engineering industry and Engineers Australia Accreditation Board expectations, which value communication and rate written communication as a key competency required for engineers (Male, Bush and Chapman, 2009). Whilst communication skills appear to form an important part of engineering curricula, teaching these skills is often the responsibility of language specialists from a Humanities background. Collaboration between discipline lecturers and writing specialists has been the form of some interventions to enhance writing skills of undergraduate engineering students (Craig, Lerner and Poe 2008). However, communicating technological information involves interpreting and using specialised disciplinary discourse; content lecturers as disciplinary experts have a key role to play in teaching their students disciplinary discourse (Airey, 2011).
This paper explores the realities of transforming engineering teaching practice within a core second year Civil Engineering unit of Structural Analysis to create space for teaching writing as disciplinary communicative practice through a strategic, enquiry approach to teaching and learning.
The research was conducted as a case-study of a Civil Engineering second year core unit, Structural Analysis, at a large Australian onshore university, taught in Semester 1, 2013. The approach used is participatory action research and the data is analysed through interpretive methods.
The key outcomes of the change in teaching practice, assessed from University student survey data, confirm students’ expectations for the unit did not include written language competency and resistance to assessment of communication skills. Challenges with implementation of the changes included development of tutoring staff competencies and confidence, and the provision of language-in-context learning activities, assessments and constructive feedback. Student feedback indicates they are more confident in writing, deconstructing questions and referencing. They have expressed enhanced understanding of the need for written communication skills in Engineering.
The conclusions are that the integration of written and oral communication skills is enhanced if the pedagogy transcends traditional teaching practices that view the teaching of engineering content as knowledge transmission. Teaching practice transformation required commitment from the University, discipline and language staff, and a modification in expectations of students. The resistance to communication skills may be mitigated by the input of engineering mentors to develop, present and assess real-world tasks for students which reflect the importance of communication skills alongside technical skills.
Engineering content and language integration; collaborative teaching; language skills in engineering