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The Write Components: Professor Stresses Writing Along with Engineering Skills

By Shannon O'Neill
April 30, 2008

Students in Mechanical Dissection and Design Analysis (ME 542) have the demeanor of a group of friends having fun in dad’s garage. The 22 guys joke around while diligently working to reassemble a small five-horsepower engine.

Sophomore Addison Masse, a classmate and TA for the lab (he’s had a lot of experience with engines) smiles and says, “Guys, when you put the pistons back in, please use a ring compressor.”

During lab time, students dissect, analyze, organize, and reassemble fishing reels, pumps, and small engines and then figure out the best ways to piece all the parts together. The end result must be polished, effective.

In addition to the hands-on experience, students in professor Gerald Sedor’s class are polishing their writing skills, which, according to Sedor, is as important as understanding how objects are put together.

The writing intensive course, which Sedor has been teaching for about 10 years, is based on “what most young kids do naturally,” he says. He’s sure to say “kids” and not “boys” because while this section of the course happens to have male students only, Sedor says some of his best students have been females.

The course’s objective is to understand how various mechanical objects work by taking them apart, examining their components, and understanding the functions of those components so that they can appreciate the effort that went into that design. Then, through group lab reports on each object, they must explain in writing the function of the system and its major components, and how the object could be improved.

“All engineers have to analyze and ask, ‘Can I make this better? Can I make this cheaper?’” Sedor says.

Car companies, for example, take part in something called “reverse engineering,” which means they buy their competitors’ products to see how they were made; then, they learn how the products were designed, and incorporate the good parts of the designs into their own new designs with the goal of achieving better functional performance at a lower cost.

In past years, students refurbished bikes donated by the Dover Police, and sent them to charities such as Toys for Tots. The year after Hurricane Katrina, the bicycles were donated to the Toys for Katrina Kids, which was organized by Foss Motors.

While dissecting and reassembling, students must keep in mind how they will present their findings in a written report; learning how to effectively communicate through writing is critical, says Sedor.

“Some students think writing isn’t a big deal, but it’s a huge deal. I don’t want them to find that out too late,” he says. “I want them to develop this skill while they’re still here. Lots of students don’t have the opportunity to develop writing skills. The secret to success is good communication skills.”

Students are aided by the textbook “A Guide to Writing as an Engineer,” as well as the help of writing fellow Mandy Park. After each writing assignment, Park talks with the class about the overarching writing issues she has seen, and she attaches handouts from the Writing Center to their lab reports.

She explains to the class the basic elements of grammar and punctuation, such as comma use and parallelism – aspects of writing that even the most seasoned professional writer can have difficulty with.

In class, Sedor gives a Power Point presentation highlighting the most common weaknesses of the most recent lab reports, written about fishing reels.

“Assume the reports are going to be published somewhere,” Sedor tells his students.

Spelling and grammar need more attention. There is too much slang. “These are technical reports, and they should be written professionally, not the way you talk to each other in class,” he says.

Sophomore Tom Matulay takes Sedor’s advice to heart.

“The reports are teaching us how to communicate in the mechanical engineering world,” he says. “It’s important for us to write them so that someone in the department can understand what the object we worked with is, how it works, how it could be improved, etc.”

The writing intensive piece of the course, he adds, “will definitely help me get jobs in the future. In order to get ahead in the industry, you have to know how to write these reports, not to mention how to write a well-written resume.”

Sedor agrees. “Many high schools today don’t emphasize writing skills. Some of them tend to focus on creativity rather than grammar and language skills,” he says.

He knows mechanical engineering executives who say poor writing skills are a big problem with entry-level engineers, and Sedor’s goal is to send a batch of good writers into job interviews.

“The class gives them an edge when they go into the job market. Writing well is critical,” he says. “Some companies have hired candidates based mostly on their writing skills; on the other hand, they may not get hired if they can’t write, so they must have other qualities that make up for it. If you can write, you really have a leg-up on the competition.”

 

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