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Course improves graduate engineering students’ writing skills

Computer science students in the classroom

NC State’s College of Engineering is one of only a few engineering schools to offer a course on improving graduate students’ writing skills — an immeasurable career boost, according to former students.

CE 610 — also known as Technical Communication for Engineering Research — is a three-credit, pass/fail, cross-department course in Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering; Computer Science; and Electrical and Computer Engineering. Graduate students learn how to write better grant proposals and research articles and abstracts, as well as how to more effectively design research posters and communicate with outside audiences. With a 15-student cap, the class allows for intensive peer review and plenty of feedback.

“Students just get so much out of the class. They’re better equipped to finish their master’s thesis or dissertation, or to win funding. What they say to me, three, four years later, is that this knowledge has stuck with them, and it’s knowledge they need every day,” said Dr. Meagan Kittle Autry, a teaching assistant professor in CCEE and assistant dean of academic affairs at William Peace University.

Kittle Autry has been teaching CE 610 since January 2017. She began teaching a variation of the class in 2014, when it was offered as a course in the English department for all graduate-level students. When Kittle Autry left her full-time position at NC State, she worked with Dr. Ranji Ranjithan, director of graduate programs and professor in CCEE, to create a modified version of the course specifically for engineering students.

Students choose two projects they’re working on — such as a research article, literature review, dissertation chapter or grant proposal — and are assigned to small groups. Each week, a different student’s project is peer reviewed by the group, so students also improve their peer-reviewing skills.

Dr. Res Orgut, who graduated with his Ph.D. in civil engineering in 2017, took the course while he was working on his dissertation. He said the benefits he received from the course went beyond academic writing, and that in general he’s become a better communicator. He adapted two of his dissertation chapters into papers, which were published in Journal of Construction Engineering and Management and Journal of Management in Engineering. A poster he worked on during the class also won second place in the 2016 Graduate Student Research Symposium.

“The way the course was structured around examining each and every component of writing — from introductions to a writing plan, conclusions, and even to peer review — in great detail makes this one of the most useful and influential courses that I have taken through my academic career,” Orgut said.

Aurora Peddycord-Liu, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Computer Science, said CE 610 was one of the best courses she took at NC State and credits it with making her a “prolific Ph.D. student.” She had eight full proceedings in peer-reviewed conferences and journals, and received two best student paper nominations.

Peddycord-Liu recently defended her dissertation and will be graduating in December. She took the course at the beginning of her second year and said she’s glad she took it early in her Ph.D. career.

“I learned that in graduate school, with the exact same research, writing can make a difference between being rejected and getting nominated as a best paper,” she said.