Promoting undergraduate research by creating a research option in a technical communication course

Jenny Lo, Lisa McNair, Whitney Edmister, Michael Alley

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


Although many institutions have called for more undergraduate research, incorporating significant research experiences into undergraduate engineering curricula has proven to be challenging. This paper presents the results of a two-year experiment in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech to address this problem by means of a research option in the traditional technical communication course, which is a required course in many engineering curricula. In this research option, students had the opportunity to prepare for and to document a summer research experience. To that end, the research option of the course was divided into two segments: (1) a spring segment to prepare students for a summer research experience, and (2) a fall segment to teach students how to document that research experience. This research option culminated with the students participating in an undergraduate research symposium that showed other undergraduates the benefits of and the opportunities for research experiences. The main results of the experiment have been positive. First, the course has been able to attract students who are academically strong and capable of succeeding in graduate school. For the two years, the average GPA of the students has been 3.7. Second, the course has been able to attract a significant number of students from underrepresented groups. Over the two years of the experiment, the course has had almost a 50 percent enrollment from students in groups underrepresented in engineering. Third, almost all of the students have been able to find funded research opportunities for the summer. This result addresses what was perhaps the biggest question mark of the experiment. Fourth, the students have learned much about technical communication, as evidenced by the relatively high number of publications at professional conferences and in professional journals that several students in the course have either authored or co-authored. A continuing challenge for the course sequence has been the integration of this unconventional course sequence into different engineering curricula. For instance, one department has been reluctant to accept this course sequence as a substitute for the traditional technical communication course. In other cases, students have taken the sequence even though the credit hours do not contribute to their plan of study. A second concern for the course has been the attrition between the spring course and the fall course. More than one-third of the students have opted not to take second portion of the course, but most of these have been students who do not need the course credits to graduate. Although more time is needed to assess the effect of this course's research experiences on the careers of these students, the course sequence appears to be a success. The next step is to try this experiment on different campuses, especially those in which technical communication is integrated differently into engineering curricula. Next year, for example, a modified version of the course sequence will be taught through the English Department at Penn State.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - 2007
Event114th Annual ASEE Conference and Exposition, 2007 - Honolulu, HI, United States
Duration: Jun 24 2007Jun 27 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Engineering(all)


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