This report is part of a research project run jointly by the Department of Chemical Engineering and the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland, to compare the writing requirements and practices of professional process engineers with those of engineering students.
This project will use a pilot study of groups of professional process engineers, undergraduate and postgraduate engineering students and also engineering professional institutions to ascertain the place and importance of written communication in the process industries. Further to this, it is hoped to determine whether undergraduate process engineering degrees adequately prepare students for the writing demands of the workplace and if not, suggest ways to adapt the current curriculum to address this gap.
As the project is to be run over two semesters, this report covers the first stage of the research: a literature study including an investigation of qualitative research methods to be used, presentation and discussion of the results from an exploratory questionnaire distributed to a sample of professional process engineers and the plan for second semester research based on the recommendations arising from first semester’s work.
Despite the lack of extensive research of this nature having been conducted, the prevailing view in Australia (Tapper 2000, McGregor et. al 2000 and Bright et. al 2000) is that tertiary graduates (particularly engineers) are widely lacking in the communication skills crucial to their future careers.
Qualitative research is a valuable tool used for investigating natural phenomena, such as behaviours, attributes, beliefs and attitudes. A questionnaire, designed around the focus question ‘How do process engineers regard the writing requirements of their job and do they think graduates are prepared for workplace writing tasks’, was used to gather data from a sample of process engineers.
Survey results show that process engineers spend between 10% and 90% of their working day writing, and generate a wide range of documents that vary in their writing style and intended audience (both technical and non technical). Despite this pervasiveness of written communication in the professional engineering area, the majority of engineers describe the writing skills of fellow engineers as either mediocre or satisfactory.
Most of the process engineers surveyed believe that engineering graduates are not prepared for the writing demands of the workplace, but are divided in opinions on how to address this issue. Therefore future research into these issues is warranted.
Overall, the objectives of the initial stage of the research project were met as the pilot study validated the project’s research methodology through the successful gathering of primary data on the perceptions of professional engineers. Analysis of the data shows the emergence of a number of themes that will be further investigated in continuing research next semester.
Continuing research, based on the initial outcomes, is formulated as a project plan for second semester.