Carnegie Mellon University
February 27, 2013

CEE Expands Technical Writing Program

CEE Expands Technical Writing Program

A writing teacher is typically an uncommon sight in the halls of an engineering department. However, CEE’s Janel Miller is working to change that. Miller, an engineer by training, retired from a career at ALCOA in 2004 and joined CEE two years later as an instructor. For the past four years, she has collaborated with CEE faculty to integrate writing instruction into the CEE curriculum.

Birth of an Idea

Miller first saw the need for technical writing instruction at CMU in 2007, when she co-taught a junior-level CEE course. While undergraduate engineering programs have traditionally emphasized problem solving, she believed providing students with a strong foundation in technical communication could give them a distinct advantage in the global job market. 

The CEE faculty addressed the issue during a 2010 retreat. Together, they brainstormed and evaluated ways to improve the writing skills of CEE graduates. Because many engineering students earn concurrent degrees and have full courseloads, the faculty decided on an integrated approach. With Miller’s assistance, professors of select core courses would incorporate writing assignments into their courses and offer students detailed edits and the option to revise their work for credit. 

Professor Greg Lowry volunteered to use his environmental engineering and laboratory courses as pilots. In one assignment, students wrote an op-ed article on an environmental issue, and received feedback and suggestions to improve. The students could then revise their op-eds to improve their grades. “Many engineering students tend to view written assignments as problem sets, and may start the assignment the day before it’s due. Then they may not have sufficient time to revise their work,” Miller said. “Revisions are a critical part of the writing process. Even the best writers revise their work.” Miller has also collaborated with other CEE professors including Don Coffelt, Jim Garrett, and Jim Thompson to design and implement writing assignments in their courses. 

New Courses & Tools

The department’s integrated approach to writing instruction has expanded to include courses that focus exclusively on writing for engineering students. Besides developing an elective technical writing course and a graduate writing course, Miller has collaborated with CEE Undergraduate Programs and Alumni Relations Director Andrea Francioni Rooney to design an invitation-only honors course for CEE students who excel at writing. Students in the course are trained in peer review and constructive feedback in the fall; they then coach fellow CEE students on writing in the spring. Rooney, who is earning her MA in Professional Writing from CMU, described the situation as “win-win,” saying, “The students in the course hone their writing and tutoring skills and have an honors writing course listed on their transcripts, and the students they tutor receive help from someone who knows the assignments and terminology.” 

In addition to working with Rooney to develop writing resources for students, Miller is involved in a multi-department project funded by the National Science Foundation that aims to improve students’ professional communication skills via an online tutoring application. Miller expects the first version of the application to be available to CEE students this spring.

Next Steps

Responses to the writing program have been positive. “One of the reasons this program has endured is the way it was formed,” Miller said. “The faculty have ownership of the idea and support what we’re doing.”  She noted that employers have commented on the good writing habits of students who were a product of the integrated approach, and in some cases these students were entrusted with more advanced tasks in internships. 

As the program evolves, Miller remains motivated by a simple vision. “Let’s imagine that prospective employers are flipping through the application packets of students from several top-ranked universities, including CMU,” she said. “They see that the students have very similar educational backgrounds. At that point, I want the employers to say, ‘Let’s hire the CMU student because they know how to write!’”

above: CEE Assistant Teaching Professor, Janel Miller meets with Peer Writing Tutor, Tye Tutt (CE BS '12, MS '13)