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Integrating Engineering and Geoscience Through Technical Writing

Thalia Anagnos, Professor, Department of General Engineering, San Jose State University

Well prepared engineering students must understand the context in which they apply their knowledge and skills. In particular, all flavors of future engineers (from computer to civil, and everything in between) will need to incorporate sustainability principles and practices into their designs and workplaces. At San José State University (SJSU) we have been combining study of earth and the environment with technical writing for almost 10 years. The engineering technical writing course (Engr 100w), described in detail in Linsdell and Anagnos (2011), was designed to prepare students for today's global engineering environment while also meeting SJSU general education goals. The course defines several learning outcomes related to improving communication skills, but it also includes the following three outcomes related earth and the environment:

Nearly all ENGR 100w writing assignments are focused on issues related to the environment. This is accomplished by hosting industry experts and academic researchers to present seminars on relevant environmental topics, and then assigning weekly written assignments related to the talks. Typical topics might include climate change, alternative energy, sustainable construction or manufacturing, ocean monitoring, earthquake prediction and loss estimation, or flood protection. Guest speakers include science and engineering faculty from SJSU and other Bay Area universities; representatives of government agencies such as US Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Air Resources Board; researchers from non-profit organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; and industry representative from companies such as Liquid Robotics, Picarro, and Bloom Energy. Students are asked to read additional material related to the speakers and then respond to a prompt. A sample prompt related to a speaker on coral reef destruction follows:
Dr. Toa'fa Vaiaga'e, Director of the American Samoa Environmental Protection Agency (AS-EPA), has hired EnvironSJ to help set priorities for developing mitigation programs. His annual budget is $500,000, so he cannot implement every suggestion in the LAS at once. He has hired you to help him determine the top priorities for his limited budget. He has asked you to include:
  • A summary of the top few contributors to coral reef destruction in American Samoa;
  • Identification of the top two goals and projects you would recommend from the LAS;
  • Identification of the first steps the AS-EPA should take to get these projects going.

As a semester culminating project students must write a proposal to address a current environmental issue. Proposals may recommend the implementation of an environmental process for use in production, the purchase of a product for use by a client, the design of a product for future sales, etc. Students are required to identify and research a problem and present a solution that establishes the need for the recommendation and presents clear steps for its implementation. Typical proposals related to the geosciences include solutions to water shortages, storm runoff management, development and delivery of alternative fuels and energy sources, chemical or waste disposal, development of environmental sensors, soil remediation, and sustainable practices.

An important goal of ENGR 100w is to help engineering students understand that solutions to the world's complex problems require an interdisciplinary approach that includes input from many stakeholders. Examples are engineers, scientists, economists, sociologists, lawyers, and policy makers, as well as end-users. This approach of hosting exciting speakers who discuss the latest problems and solutions related to earth and environment issues provides important real-world context to what engineering students are learning in their other technical classes. It also helps engineering students learn how to communicate their important findings to a variety of audiences. Since most engineering and geosciences students are required to take writing and/or oral communications courses as part of their curriculum. An approach like this could be easily implemented at many universities without having to make major curricular changes.

Reference

Linsdell, J., & Anagnos, T. (2011) Motivating Technical Writing through Study of the Environment, J. Professional Issues in Eng. Ed. and Practice, ASCE, V137, 20-27.

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