300-Level Civil Engineering (Writing-Intensive)

PEER EDITING AND REVISION IN CIVIL ENGINEERING

[Students] don't know that a lot of civil engineers and not managers are involved in the operation and management of airlines, railroads and other transportation industries. So the first paper had to do with airlines. . . . Actually if you live in Hawai‘i, there's very little you can do without airlines. You can't go anywhere else. That was also another reason why I focused on airlines. --Professor Panos Prevedouros.

One thing I learned is that writing for an engineering professor is different than writing for an English professor. An engineering professor simply wants the facts. There is no need to be fancy. Just use a clear, easy to understand writing style and get to the point. --Student

COURSE GOALS

The goals of the course are revealed by the title, "Fundamentals of Transportation Engineering." Dr. Prevedouros believes he has the "responsibility to cover almost everything that there is in transportation and make it understandable." Though his students are not expected to become experts on transportation after taking this course, he does hold the expectation that writing "can help me achieve with my students a better understanding of a specific part of the material."

Writing is a way to learn about issues in civil engineering that are familiar to the students, such as tsunami evacuation or the proposed O‘ahu rail transit system. To help students learn the conventions of engineering writing, a writing guide is provided. Because most of these students will become practicing engineers after graduating, learning to write as an engineer while still an undergraduate is an important component of their education.

WRITING ACTIVITIES

1. READING-BASED REPORT WITHOUT PEER / INSTRUCTOR COMMENTARY

In the first week of class, students receive a writing assignment on a transportation topic (see Assignment). To enable them to complete the first 7-8-page paper in about three weeks, the instructor provides them readings on which to base their report. Though the instructor provides abundant commentary on the first paper, he encourages informal discussion but does not mandate conferencing or revision.

PURPOSE:

The instructor wants to accomplish several objectives with this first paper:

  1. introduce a potential civil engineering career
  2. introduce students to the format of the engineering report
  3. link classroom learning to real-world applications
  4. relate students' life experiences to civil engineering.
The professor was helpful in giving us a handout which contained the format of a paper. It showed examples and clearly stated what should and should not be on the paper. He also helped us focus on the topics. The paper corrections (done by myself, a classmate, and the instructor) helped my paper, my correcting ability, and gave me ideas for my paper. --Student
2. REVIEW OF TECHNICAL ISSUES WITH PEER / INSTRUCTOR COMMENTARY

The second 10-12-page paper, due just before final exams, is treated very differently. In the six weeks from assignment to due date, students have to carry out research and gather data for a report such as one weighing the potential costs and benefits of Honolulu's proposed fixed guideway mass transit system. Two weeks from the assignment date, a full draft is due to the instructor.

The draft is assigned to another student who anonymously provides suggestions for revision and editing. Students look over another student's paper in the role (framed by the instructor) of "devil's advocates." The peer-edited paper is returned to the instructor who adds his comments. On the second paper, students are expected to be able to take over many of the editing functions the instructor carried out in the first paper. Where student editors are able to do this, the instructor is able to focus more on substantive suggestions for revision.

Though the draft is not graded, students who do the editing receive extra points based on the thoroughness of their work. After the doubly critiqued draft is returned, students have two weeks to complete their final paper.

The paper on mass transit helped to tie everything learned in this course together. I had to be able to join the skills learned and also the facts that were taught to us together. We also had to edit other students' papers and that was very helpful. I became more aware as to what readers want and look for in papers. --Student
PURPOSE:

The second paper gives students more practice with engineering writing. Professor Prevedouros says the most important thing he wants students to learn from their writing is how to organize and prioritize ideas in a meaningful way and then present them in a structured, technical document (see Guidelines). Learning about the issue is a lower priority since the research, writing, and class discussions are expected to facilitate subject-matter learning.
One writing activity was a small project where we incorporated drawings and technical analysis into a 2-3 page paper (plus drawings). I felt this was very helpful, as these are the types of things I may be doing once I graduate. --Student
The peer editing process provides students with opportunities to assess a classmate's writing and to reflect on their own writing. Student editors are expected to provide critical commentary to help the writer improve the final paper. As they do this, they see how another person writes, and gain ideas on content, style, and structure that help them when they revise their own papers. When they receive their peer-edited paper, they receive feedback on their own writing from yet another peer.

Perhaps more importantly, the capable student editor enables the instructor to focus on the content of the paper. The sharing of responsibilities provides opportunities for students and (instructor to do a thorough job.

3. TECHNICAL ANALYSIS AND PROBLEM-SOLVING

Specific civil engineering problems posed by the instructor require that students employ mathematics, computer, graphics, and writing skills. These are realistic problems such as the periodic chaos at the Dole St.-University Ave. intersection.

PURPOSE:

These short, problem-solving papers apply classroom learning to real world civil-engineering situations in settings that are familiar to students.

Having us make suggestions helped in putting the theoretical knowledge we gained into a practical situation. It helped me to understand channelization at the intersection more thoroughly. There should be more such activities concerned with the coursework we do in class.--Student

In order to make the research and writing as meaningful as possible, Professor Prevedouros selects topics that are especially relevant to students in Hawai‘i:

I generally try to give them a subject for which they have basic knowledge from their lives--not even having to do with engineering. For example, airlines, tsunami evacuation, public transit . . . because it is very hard if you start from an extremely abstract and technical subject. If you just focus on detailed issues, then they just don't get the whole picture and that's very bad. Or they perceive transportation, for example, as something very narrow.

So the first paper had to do with airlines understanding the industry. I gave them some excerpts from The Economist and Scientific American [that] assess new technologies, [describe] how engineers can contribute to running an airline or designing an aircraft, and also [relate] how airlines fit in the whole global transportation environment. Perhaps if I had the same class in Chicago, I would do something on high-speed rail, but it wouldn't apply here.

In previous times when I taught this class, we did a short paper on tsunami evacuation. That is another interesting local subject. So then in that part they learned about emergency evacuation and what particular traffic implications this has.

Both instructor and students value the peer editing process. Dr. Prevedouros evaluates the experience:

This is something I will definitely do again, because it seems that most of my students were very happy, and the few that were not, they were not that upset with it. Part of the reason is because they had a mediocre editor. So for them, really, it didn't work out.

Some of the editors made my job much easier because indeed they went into detail and checked everything, word by word--sentence structure, paragraph structure, everything! Probably they went beyond the point I would go. And most of them did a decent job in that.

They were a little behind on the substantive part, but that, of course, is explainable because our students [are] getting educated, so it's hard to read somebody else's paper and try to make very informed judgments on what is there and how much else there should be, or that something should be expanded or dropped, etc., because they are not very familiar with the subject.

Dr. Prevedouros believes that the peer editors make his work more efficient and academic. He says effectiveness of the top one-third of the peer editors allows him to focus more on content-oriented suggestions: topic expansion, addition, or deletion. If the peer's suggestions are good and he has relatively
few comments to make, he holistically evaluates both the peer editor and the paper:

You are lucky. Your editor did a grand job. Use the editor's comments selectively. Good substance and structure.

If the peer's suggestions are a bit harsh, he might write:

Editor a bit too rough and demanding. Use comments to your advantage.

Dr. Prevedouros knows that not all his students realize that writing is an important part of what an engineer does nor do they all value it as a way of learning engineering in depth. To overcome resistance to writing, he modified his major writing assignment from one long term paper to two shorter ones. Some students, he said, resented a single paper that forced them to write as experts about an unfamiliar subject. This gives students another opportunity to practice what they learned from the first paper and gives them a new role as critical readers in the peer editing/revision step.