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ABET EC2000 inspires new models for collaborative teaching

Consortium for the Study of Engineering Communication *

A new trend in collaborative instruction

At Northwestern University, when freshman design students Eric Yang , Anita Patel, Liao Chiang, and Antonella Lostumbo asked for a critique of their design and proposal for a new feeding tube to help a young boy with familial disautonomia, they had two professors to call on: one in engineering and one in communications. But the responses they got may have surprised them. Contrary to expectations, the communications professor was likely to question how their proposed design addressed all the critical functions identified in their design requirements, while the engineering professor would often remind them to highlight key ideas with bullet point lists or shorten their executive summary. In Northwestern's Engineering Design and Communication course, which stresses the connection between design and communication, the lesson students learn is a calculated one: communication is an integral part of the design process, and good communication is essential for good design.

Eric ,Anita, Liao, and Antontella are just a few of the many engineering students throughout the country studying communication, teamwork, and ethics in innovative courses or collaborations involving faculty from across the campus. At Cornell University, a course in the Engineering Communications Program gave Emily Klein the chance to research techniques for etching silicon thin films and to produce both a paper and oral presentation for non-specialists; this communications project taught her to "translate" technical material for different audiences and also prepared her for a summer position at Applied Materials, Inc. At Rice University, when David Nunez and Alex Bain wanted to turn their software design project into a new business idea, they got instruction on writing a business plan and giving finance presentations from communication faculty. At University of North Carolina-Charlotte, engineering students get much of their writing instruction in their introductory freshman engineering class, where all of their papers will be evaluated and critiqued by engineering teaching assistants trained by the director of the University Writing Programs .And at Michigan Tech, in an NSF funded enterprise program beginning next spring, students will do a better job managing their work team because they get instruction in team communication and writing from humanities faculty.

These engineering students and their faculty are benefiting from a national trend in collaborative pedagogy that has emerged as a response to ABET's Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC 2000). To help students develop the communication abilities and social awareness now considered essential in engineering practice, engineering schools are forging new connections with faculty from departments of English, speech, and philosophy.  Rather than sending students across campus to study writing,  presentation techniques, or ethics, engineering schools are inviting humanities and other faculty to help reshape the teaching of these skills within an engineering context. By studying communication and other topics in conjunction with engineering courses, coop jobs, or entrepreneurial projects, students better see the relevance of these skills and are more motivated to learn them. In addition, collaboration has other positive ramifications: it revitalizes faculty interest in teaching and, in some cases, fosters closer relationships between the academy and industry.

Collaboration in action: the Northwestern freshman model

Northwestern University's new freshman course is one of the most ambitious collaborations. Engineering Design and Communication (EDC) is a two-quarter, project-based course comprising 22 16-student sections, with each section team-taught by faculty from both Engineering and Arts and Sciences. A core group of faculty from each school work together to set goals, plan lectures, design lab activities, facilitate faculty "cluster meetings," and manage assessment.

EDC motivates students to succeed-and captures the excitement of engineering-by having them work on real projects for real clients. In the first quarter, after a brief hands-on project that introduces a design process, four-person student teams design web sites for campus departments, research groups, student organizations, local schools, and even small businesses. Throughout the projects, students are coached in a user-centered approach to design and learn a number of analytical tools and project management techniques. Projects culminate in three deliverables: a prototype web site, a written report, and an oral presentation. To stress the point that communication is an integral part of engineering, all the communication requirements in this course-memos, progress reports, proposals, drawings, and PowerPoint presentations-stem from the work in design.

In the second quarter of EDC, students tackle projects that span a range of problems and disciplines. Past EDC teams have developed designs like the following:

  • an enhanced pager system for volunteer firemen
  • a portable balance beam for disabled children
  • an improved mobile CAD station for a local design firm
  • an improved ergonomic rake handle (which may be patented by the students)
  • several prosthetics for a local woman who lost a hand in a fire, allowing her to play tennis, cross country ski, and write with a pen.

EDC teaches design and communication as parallel, interconnected processes. By requiring students to generate multiple design concepts and revise multiple drafts of their reports, the course shows that revision is indispensable to both creative design and clear communication. Students also learn that design prototypes and report drafts are both routinely subjected to scrutiny from multiple points of view.  Similarly, both designs and reports must be measured against user-defined requirements and criteria. Finally, EDC teaches students that design and communication are interconnected and support each other. Writing a rigorous and well-argued proposal is not just a means of communicating; it is a also a means of uncovering flaws in a design and sharpening one's thinking as an engineer.

The EDC model of collaboration provides a number of benefits.  First, it takes advantage of the synergy that exists between design and communication so that students increase their learning and achievement in both areas.  Second, as the two groups of faculty teach the course, they model the collaboration and skills that students are expected to acquire. Watching their faculty work together, students see that on a multidisciplinary team, like those widely used in industry, team members do more than divide their work by specialty; rather, they learn from each other and expand their ability to contribute to a project. Finally, according to Northwestern faculty from both disciplines, collaboration adds to the pleasure of teaching the course. To quote one prestigious design professor after he first taught EDC, "It is really exciting to see how much richer a design course can be when so many people with so many different perspectives work together and generate new ideas." 

Many successful new models of collaboration

Northwestern's freshman design course is just one example of innovative cross-disciplinary teaming. As these examples illustrate, successful collaborations are always shaped by local conditions, expertise, and resources. Some programs take advantage of pre-existing campus initiatives in writing across the curriculum and technical communication; others build on the expertise and interest of specific communication or engineering faculty; still others capitalize on grant opportunities to build collaborations.

Despite local differences, however, all these programs send a clear message: that instruction in communication, teamwork, and other key skills can successfully support ABET EC2000 goals-and reap great rewards-when integrated into the engineering curriculum.

* Consortium for the Study of Engineering Communication

Deborah Andrews (University of Delaware)

Deborah Bosley (University of North Carolina Charlotte)

Marj Davis (Mercer University)

Linda Driskill (Rice University)

J. R. "Dick" Hayes (Carnegie-Mellon University)

Penny Hirsch (Northwestern University)

Margaret Hundleby (Auburn University)

Lee Odell (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Priscilla Rogers (University of Michigan)

Jone Rymer (Wayne State University)

Karen Schriver (Karen Schriver and Associates)

Barbara Shwom (Northwestern University)

Steven Youra (Cornell University)

By George A. Hazelrigg
National Science Foundation