Professional Skills for First-Year Engineering Students Gerard M Blair Department of Electrical Engineering Christine M Robinson Department of English Language The University of Edinburgh Edinburgh, Scotland A new component has been introduced to the first-year Engineering course at the University of Edinburgh aiming to promote study-skills under the guise of Professional Engineer- ing. This article looks at the philosophy and implementation of this new component and relates our experience so far in the hope that this may benefit other educators working on similar projects. Introduction There is an acknowledged need for engineering students to acquire basic transferable skills to be effective as practising engineers in industry. Often it is the abilities to communicate with other people and to organize time and work which mark out the graduate who is preferred for employment. Many engineering departments have modified their courses to enhance these skills so as to produce graduates who are able to step directly into positions of responsibility. The greater need, however, is when students arrive at university. At this stage, the majority are coming with little or no experience of the freedom which university life affords them. At the same time, they are suddenly faced with a vastly different educational environment in terms of the way in which knowledge is delivered and the amount of independent learning which is required. The key observation is that many of the skills needed by new students are the same as the "transferable" skills habitually missing in graduates. Thus the solution is to provide students with training in these skills at the very beginning of their university education. In fact, the initial motivation for this first year course came from the suggestion of fourth year students. Much of the material was originally devised for a fourth-year module on management skills. When this was taught for the first time, the students protested quite strongly that it was coming too late in their career at university since it could have helped them throughout their whole degree. Study-skills teaching is approached by a variety of methods in different universities. In some, such material forms a preliminary module. In others, the material is offered as additional classes provided across disciplines by central university agencies. The effectiveness of these approaches is reduced by two factors. First, the courses are seen by some students as remedial and therefore (if voluntary) are not taken by all who might benefit from them. Second, the fact that the study-skills courses are seen as being unrelated to the main discipline reduces the students' motivation. Our approach to these problems has been to provide training as an integral part of the engineering curriculum for all students and to characterise it not as study-skills but as professional skills for engineers. Training in skills is hard since they ultimately must be adopted and personalised by the individual student. It would be futile for the student simply to learn skills as a set of established procedures which can be reproduced for examination purposes; success only comes through active practice. The training has much in common with delegation. First, you have to explain the problem; if students do not realize the need for and benefit of a skill, they will not engage in its acquisition. Second, you have to provide a framework in which their initial work is performed: assignments and delivery dates. Third, you need to give guidance on possible solutions and sources of further information and advice. Fourth, you must establish a mechanism for providing feedback on progress. Finally, and most importantly, you must make it clear that you are handing over to the student the authority to develop new and better ways of approaching the task: the student thereafter must take control of his or her own learning. Only by gaining the active participation of the students will you enable them to take personal responsibility for their own skills' development. First-year Engineering at Edinburgh In line with the Scottish tradition for a broad education, first-year engineering students at Edinburgh University take an integrated course which covers material from each of the four engineering departments: Chemical, Civil, Electrical and Mechanical. This combined course has a large class size of about 230 students. For the 1993-4 academic year, the timetable was rearranged to include Professional Engineering as a fifth component. Although this component lacked formal laboratories, it included instead written assignments whose assessment counted towards the student's final mark. The topics of the twelve lectures are shown and explained below. _________________________________ |Lecture Topics | | | |Word processing | |Writing I | |Note Taking | |Guest Lecture I | |Writing II & Time Management I | |Guest Lecture II | |Guest Lecture III | |Writing III | |Time Management II | |Career Planning I | |Career Planning II | |Career Planning III | |_______________________________| Word processing The use of hand written reports in a professional context is now uncommon. It is therefore appropriate to encourage students of engineering to become familiar with and to use a word processor. To emphasise this, our students were told that all of the professional engineering assignments had to be prepared using a word processor; some of the laboratory reports, however, were handwritten at the request of some departments. With the word processor comes many advantages. The actual mechanics of teaching word processing software are now very simple since the popular packages come with excellent, simple, on-line tutorials. These allow the student to learn quickly all the commands necessary to produce high quality documents. In fact we ran the initial laboratories with 60 students (and PCs) at a time with four demonstrators who were totally bored through the lack of student questions. Automatic spell checking (complete with on-line dictionary and thesaurus) are available. The advantage of having spelling checked by a machine rather than a human marker is that the student is forced to find (or at least select) the correct spelling on the way to producing a professional document. This contrasts with the human marker where (if caught) a spelling error is often noted and the correction/learning is then left to the diligence of the student. Of course, not all errors are caught by the spell checker (for instance: practice/practise) so the task of checking the draft for spelling errors is only simplified, not removed. The word processor promotes the effective use of layout. Students are used to seeing text-books with informative sectioning of the text; with the ability to mimic these styles, they are more likely to consider the use of layout in facilitating communication with the reader. In mandating the use of word processors, we are also addressing the hidden agenda for promoting computer literacy. Despite the growth of computers in schools, some students still either lack keyboard skills or are actually computer phobic. Since computers are an essential tool in their education during later years (especially for CAE), the students need to acquire confidence as soon as possible. It is better to learn to type in the relative calm of first-year rather than in the frenzy of final-year report writing. However, perhaps the most significant advantage is highlighted in the following extracts from a discussion document at the 1993 Engineering Professors' conference: A vital aspect of acquiring understanding is trying to articulate one's understanding in writing or discussion. Word processing provides important encouragement for students to express their own ideas and to develop their understanding, since revisions and corrections are so much easier to achieve. To illustrate this, consider the examples of student errors shown below. These were taken from laboratory reports which were hand-written. With most students, the majority of errors in these examples would be clear if the work was re-read - and they would be corrected if this did not involve re-writing the entire document. The word processor facilitates this process. ______________________________________________________________________________ | Typical Errors in Laboratory Reports | | | |Uppon constructing the circuit there were no faults in it and when attached | |to the ossiliscope it gave the predicted wave forms. I found the soldering | |very easy. | | | |Resistive sensors could also be used to monitor (and possibly intervene) | |driving aspects in cars. | | | |This Report will set out to assess ethanol as a fuel and how to compares in | |cost and efficienty to that of petrol. At the end I hope to conclude | |whether ethanol is a viable fuel or not. | | | |This would result in the CO2 levels to rise as the trees and plants are not | |turning it into O2 and is therefore helping the greenhouse effect. | | | |The first is unsuported the second has fixed ends. | | | |The beam with the fixed end's absorbed more energy, this is because it was | |deformed in three places compared to the single deformation in the beam | |with the loose end's. | | | |Since the beam should be elastic and therefore directly proportional, the | |time will be straight and the area will be a triangle. | |____________________________________________________________________________| Of course, the process of revision and correction extends beyond simple grammatical and spelling errors: it includes the clarity with which the text conveys the students' own meaning and level of knowledge. Only when that is properly expressed can a tutor begin to deal with the problems in the engineering. Writing For many school pupils, one of the great pleasures in opting for scientific subjects is that this allows them to avoid English; unfortunately, the professional engineer cannot. The three aims of the writing skills material were: to demonstrate to students that there was a problem, to convince them of the need to improve and to show them how they could go about improving. The time available was short: to achieve any significant improvements, the students had to be persuaded to manage their own skill development. The main difficulty of this exercise was in the provision of feedback to the students so that they could monitor their own performance and improvements. The problem lay in providing such feedback to 230 students. Our solution was to devise an assignment attachment which was completed with the marking of all written work throughout the course. This included the laboratory reports for each of the four engineering disciplines; thus, the connection with "real" engineering was made explicit. For the Professional Engineering module itself, the students had to submit four short pieces (about 500 words) and a longer essay (about 2000 words) based upon a topic suggested by one of the guest lectures. The aim of the short pieces was for the students to be able to focus upon the writing without the problems of organising large quantities of information; the essay was then intended to focus upon the difficulties of structuring a larger piece of work. The assignment assessment broke the writing task down into a set of component skills as shown in figure below. The component skills were based upon a review of students' work from previous years and included the aspects of writing which are most criticised by employers. Also some components (such as spelling and layout) were deliberately included so that a conscientious but less-able student could quickly achieve improvement. ______________________________________________________________ |Assignment Assessment Categories | | | |PRESENTATION | | Correct format for task (essay/lab report/learning log) | | Legibility (handwriting, wp layout) | | Spelling | | References (correctly cited, layout of bibliography) | | | |COMMUNICATION SKILLS | | Content | | Register (degree of formality, use of language) | | Logical ordering (overall plan, paragraphing) | | Well formed sentences (grammar, punctuation) | |____________________________________________________________| Each component was marked in one of four simple categories indicating: o very good o adequate o some improvement desirable o serious - requires immediate attention with space for specific comments both on each component and on the assignment as a whole under the heading ACTION TO BE TAKEN. It was suggested to the students that, when preparing the next piece of work, they should always focus upon one component which had been poor in the previous assignment assessment. Although it was difficult to convince the students, it was stressed that the categories did not represent "marks" as such but rather performance indicators. This distinction was intended to raise the students' sense of personal responsibility: the categories were to help them to make their own assessment, not for the tutors to assess them. The lectures varied in content and objective. The first lecture dwelt on the fundamentals of writing in general and on writing for engineers in particular. Subsequent lectures were focused upon covering the predominant problems found by the tutors in previous assignments. The students responded particularly well to exercises where poor sentences from student work were corrected first by them and then by the lecturer. This seemed to convince them of the revision which they could undertake on their own work. The instruction was that all word processed documents should always be printed out double-spaced and then corrected before the final submission. To complement the purely written feedback, surgeries were run to help individual students. These tended to be used either by non-native English speakers and by students who had been sent by their tutors. Surgeries were also very useful in showing students how to read their own work critically and how to set about improving it. Some of the students interviewed were strongly in favour of improving the writing skills of engineers but did not think the lectures applied particularly to them until a few minutes had been spent going over their work with them individually. Students nearly always recognised and corrected grammatical errors when asked what a particular sentence meant; tips like reading over one's work aloud or getting a friend to proof-read seemed to strike home when they saw how dramatically they could improve their work themselves. Support material was provided in the form of written guidance on the component skills. It seems important to offer at least the first line of support to students seeking information concerning ways to improve on their previous assignment assessments. In fact, interviews with students revealed that these were seldom given more than a cursory glance. In future years the guidance will be presented in a more eye-catching form: similar to quick reference cards for computer software. Note Taking None of the students in our first year had ever received any instruction on taking notes in a lecture. Considering how much time they would be spending in lectures during their degree, it seemed worthwhile getting them to consider a technique. The topic was presented as a variation on writing skills. Just as other forms of engineering writing rely upon communicating information to a target audience, note taking is communicating information to oneself. Aiming at a clear, concise style, the note taker can dispense with all but the barest of words focusing upon the information points only and the layout of the page can be used to represent the information structure. To illustrate the advantages of this approach, the students were asked to take notes on a five minute clip from a video of an Equinox television programme. They were then asked to swap notes and to compare what they had recorded: no one felt that they had learnt from their neighbours' note- taking style. Then the lecturer simply went through the contents of the video clip as information bullet points on the board reproducing them in less time than the original video clip. While this worked well as an entertaining lecture, it would have failed if the students had not actually thought about the problem for themselves in the context of other lectures. For this reason, we gave them some specific opportunities. The students were instructed to treat the guest lectures which followed as a chance both to practise this style of note taking and to evolve their own approach. In semi-formal interviews conducted with students at the end of the course, note-taking material was singled out for praise. Guest Lectures The guest lectures performed three functions within the Professional Engineering module. Firstly, they offered an insight into the work of practising engineers. Each talk covered aspects of engineering which impact upon the practising engineer. Secondly, they provided structured practice for the students to explore techniques in note taking. Finally, they form a wide but relevant range of topics for the longer essay assignment, which the students had to submit some time later. For this they were told to select a theme from any of the talks and to develop it through their own literature search. The first-year engineering course had a unifying theme of Transport and the Environment. With this in mind the three lectures were from ScotRail (signals and safety), the RAF (aircraft development) and the National Engineering Laboratories (vehicle emissions). Time Management While the need for time management in professional engineering is well understood, the case for providing instruction to first-year students is less well established. Some argue that one of the main outcomes of a first- year at university is that students mature and naturally develop the ability to manage their own time, that life is the best teacher. Yet in the industrial context, there are many training courses upon which employers expend considerable resources. Thus, many are convinced that "life" is not the only teacher and that the process can be accelerated by explicit instruction in appropriate techniques. Our aim was to provide this instruction for our students. Local evidence for the merits of time management for students comes from an on-going project monitoring first-year engineering students through the use of an extensive questionnaire on learning styles and preferences. When we were designing the professional engineering module, the results of the 1993 cohort of students were analysed to see if there were any significant links between learning styles and performance in assessment. In the event, only two characteristics linked students with success: "academic self- confidence" (rather obviously) and "time management". The basic material for time management was introduced using sections from two Video Arts videos. These have the merit of gaining instant attention, but leave the problem of convincing the student that they have any direct relevance to student life. The two section were shown in two different lectures separated by four weeks. The intention was to raise the issues early on in the course and then to suggest solutions after the students had begun to appreciate the problems they were facing in preparing for their first major deliverable: the end of term exams. At the first lecture, a booklet was distributed with sections to be filled-in regarding how they used their time, what were their the major "time wasters" and how to set and use objectives. As a real-life example, the effectiveness of tutorials as a mechanism for learning was contrasted between a student who arrives prepared and one who does not. However, the emphasis was not only on the management of their study but also on the control that time management would give them over the use of all their time. Thus the amount of pleasure they get from (say) sport could depend upon their training schedule; the ability to drop everything and to go out with a surprise guest may depend upon knowing how to reschedule other essential activities; the freedom to go away for the weekend without work suffering may come from scheduling that work for a slack period during the week. The theme was that as students they now have sufficient control of their lives to make explicit decisions. Finally, the theme was extended to discuss how they could now make decisions concerning their time which could have a direct impact upon their futures after university. The example was that they would be judged by future employers by factors in addition to their academic qualifications - did they intend to achieve anything else of note in the next four years and how were they going to do that? As an anecdotal aside, over the past three years of teaching time management to first-years, more students each year have said that the reason they came to university was because there was no suitable alternative. These students in particular need to establish a positive objective lest their time at university is wasted. As with the rest of the professional engineering course, these lectures emphasised the need for the student to take responsibility. The following is an extract from the booklet: Time Management is a tool which can help you to use your time effectively. Just as money is a resource which you have to look after carefully, so too is time. How you spend either should be planned, monitored and reviewed, or else they will be wasted. Time Management lets you manage time. The single most significant change between school and university is that YOU have to manage your own time. No one is there to remind you to do it - no one is there to make you do it - but this course is here to show you how. Careers Planning The final thrust of the module was a three lecture event on Careers. This was organized through the University Careers Service which is actively promoting early attention by students to gaining work experience and transferable skills from the very beginning of their time at university. The topic also represented a practical application of two skills learnt in the rest of the module: planning careers, and in particular establishing a suitable profile, is an important application of time management; the CV is an essential application of writing skills. As such, the topic was intended to reinforce the motivation for acquiring these two skills. The first lecture was devoted to a set of short talks given by recent graduates about their experiences in industry; they tended, without any prompting, to dwell on the importance of transferable skills. The second lecture dealt with the writing of a CV and the third lecture looked at interviewing techniques. The event was further supported with material on how to develop transferable skills at university and on how to seek relevant work experience. Assessment of the Writing skills component. The writing skills aspect of the professional engineering module seemed to merit additional resources to assess it fully. Particularly, we wished to gauge the effectiveness of the feedback mechanism for promoting active development on the part of the students. For this purpose funds were obtained from the Edinburgh University Small Projects Development Trust and Dr Robinson (one of the authors) from the English Language department was employed half-time to work exclusively on developing writing-skills material and on monitoring student development. This involved double marking many scripts, conducting staff and student interviews, preparing questionnaires, running surgeries and monitoring the work of a random selection of students. A questionnaire was distributed at about the half-way stage to find out how the students were responding to the writing skills component. According to the 113 responses, all but 2 students appreciated the need for good writing skills and 51 had been convinced of this by the lectures. 74 students felt their skills were in need of improvement. Concerning the assessment attachments, only 3 intended to ignore them; 22 thought about the headings as they wrote; 83 looked at each assignment attachment to see how they could improve; and 39 compared successive attachments to monitor their progress. The quality of feedback came in for some criticism from students. Complaints were received about delays in returning written work so that they did not have the feedback from one assignment before tackling the next. They objected to vague, non-existent or illegible comments and inconsistency in marking. They also asked for errors to be indicated on the scripts. To ascertain the degree of consistency in marking, scripts from a cross- section of markers were assessed independently. While small variations were found, the degree of consistency was remarkably good. However, there were occasional aberrations where assessment had been rather impressionistic. For example, a few scripts with no spelling errors were given an "adequate" for spelling, presumably by analogy with the deplorable state of the other features of these scripts. Certain markers seemed more committed to, and knowledgeable about, good writing skills than others but this was reflected in the quality of the comments rather than in the assessment. Comparison of successive assignment attachments for individual students confirmed what might be regarded as self-evident: students are more likely to act upon clear instructions backed up with examples. They cannot and will not respond to vague remarks; it is very time-consuming to explain to a student how to structure a piece of writing but "Unstructured!" means very little to the student and does not tell the student how to improve. The students' comments regarding the indicating of errors on scripts seemed to be justified. Laboratory reports were often marked by post-graduate demonstrators who very obviously had neither the knowledge nor the motivation to teach writing skills. Furthermore the marking of the four short pieces and the essay by members of staff indicated that some staff training would be beneficial. It had been hoped that the simple marking proforma of the assignment attachments would assist in the marketing - however, many staff complained about the extra burden involved in thinking about and marking each of the assessment components separately rather than simply assigning an overall mark. This attitude may be exemplified in one of the most diligent of the markers who nevertheless said: "I didn't come here to be an English teacher". The following misspellings were found in laboratory reports without any comments from the markers: effecienty, oscilliscope, ossiliscope, guage, corossion, ethenol, propelle, similtaneously, enevitablely, accross, excercise, finnished, jugement, prooved, necassery, emitts, wether, was'nt, it's. In both the laboratory reports and the short pieces of work, punctuation was seldom corrected and badly formed sentences, if marked, were rarely noted by more than an underline. Rather more care was taken in the marking of essays. There were occasional examples of misinformation being disseminated by markers. Students were told to "use the passive tense." Even if this misuse of terminology were corrected to "use the passive voice", it is debatable whether the comment is of any real value. "Write impersonally", accompanied by an example rewritten from the student's work might be more helpful. Often, markers failed to diagnose what was actually wrong with badly formed sentences: comments like "long sentence" were commonly applied to what were actually several run-on sentences. Although much of the student criticism of markers was justified, the majority of markers did provide good feedback. The questionnaire showed that 96 out of 113 students found the comments helpful. The best markers provided a lot of positive feedback such as "A good essay which I enjoyed reading." It came as a surprise to some students that their essay is read by a real person who might actually enjoy it. A few markers showed great sensitivity in adjusting the wording of their comments to the abilities and personality of the individual student, using humour with able and confident students and finding something encouraging to say to students whose efforts exceeded their achievements. Where classes are large and each assignment is read by a different marker, it takes a bit of extra effort on the part of the marker to establish a relationship of mutual respect within which the student is more likely to be motivated and receptive to advice. Even the apparently small gesture of a marker signing the assignment attachment was appreciated by students. On the credit side, the assessment attachments were undoubtedly highly successful in directing the attention of staff and students to the importance of communicative skills within the Professional Engineering module, an importance which perhaps they will transfer to other written coursework and beyond. Without the re-enforcement of the assessment attachment, the writing skills aspect of the course would almost certainly have been overwhelmed by the engineering content. The attachments were very useful in drawing the attention of students to their weakest points and directing them to action in a way which could not have been achieved by a less formal method of feedback. They facilitated the continuing development of the students each at their own pace and according to their own abilities, directing their efforts to the needs of engineering writing for the professional engineer. References 1. "Developments in First Degree Courses in Engineering", Occassional Papers, no. 6, Engineering Professor's Conference, May 1993. 2. G.M. Blair, "How to Write Right", IEE Engineering Management Journal, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 111-5, June 1992.
Gerard M Blair is a Senior Lecturer in VLSI Design at the Department of Electrical Engineering, The University of Edinburgh. His book Starting to Manage: the essential skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA). He welcomes feedback either by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by any other method found here