Collaborative Research: Bridging the Writing Transfer Gap in Early Engineering Laboratory Courses

Dave Kim
Professor and Mechanical Engineering Program Coordinator
Washington State University: Vancouver

Undergraduate students entering engineering programs possess years of educational experience that impact their learning in the major. This study focuses on undergraduates’ learning on engineering lab report writing, directly related to ABET Outcomes 3 and 6. Before entering their first engineering lab courses, most engineering undergraduates learn how to write extensively through general education writing courses, including first-year composition and/or technical communication. Through the lens of transfer theories, engineering students’ transfer of learning from first-year composition and/or technical communication to engineering courses can be defined as “far transfer” due to the disciplinarily distinct features of these courses. It is not well known how engineering undergraduates transfer their writing knowledge gained from general education writing courses when writing lab reports in the lower-division engineering labs.

Guiding Questions:
1. What writing knowledge is instructed in first-year composition and/or technical communication?
2. What are the gaps between the students’ prior writing knowledge and the engineering instructors’ expectations in lab report writing?
3. How do engineering students transfer their prior writing knowledge to early engineering lab writing?

1. US writing educators have attempted to both represent and standardize writing programs’ priorities for first composition as rhetorical knowledge; critical thinking, reading, and composing; writing processes; and knowledge of conventions. Often, students are assigned to write a research paper on controversial issues.
2. Technical communication (or technical writing) technical writing courses mainly offer students opportunities to design documents that meet the needs of a wide range of readers and users in the workplace. Typically, students work on developing transferable skills related to designing, analyzing, and user-testing genres such as manual instructions, technical reports, and software for technical/professional audiences.
3. Engineering lab instructors expect students to show the following outcomes in their lab reports: 1) addressing technical audience expectations, 2) presenting experimental processes, 3) illustrating lab data using appropriate graphic/table forms, 4) analyzing lab data, 5) interpreting lab data, 6) providing an effective conclusion, 7) developing ideas using effective reasoning and productive patterns, 8) demonstrating appropriate genre conventions, and 9) establishing solid control of conventions for a technical audience.
4. We found that research paper and essay assignments would typically be classified as far transfer sources, as the conventions of those genres were different enough from lab reports that a student could not simply utilize the techniques of one and get a good grade on both. Science lab reports and report-style documents from technical communication courses were classified as near transfer sources, as the conventions of those genres were generally considered similar enough to an engineering lab report that a student could rely on the techniques from one and perform well on the other.

Broader Impacts:
1. We are developing and testing lab report writing instructional modules for engineering lab instructors. The modules share an audience-awareness (rhetorically-focused) approach to writing that freshman engineering undergraduates learn in first-year composition and technical communication.
2. Engineering lab instructors at the three participating schools –– Oregon Institute of Technology, Washington State University Vancouver, the University of Portland – are currently using the pilot modules for their labs. A total of 200 students and 20 engineering instructors and teaching assistants have been impacted yearly since 2021.


Dave Kim, Washington State University Vancouver, WA*; Wendy Olson*; John Lynch*; Ken Lulay, the University of Portland, OR; Charles Riley, Oregon Institute of Technology, OR; Matt Frye, Schweitzer Engineering Labs, WA.