Originally published November 18, 2016
By Chyanne Smith
The best research and proposals don’t do much good if they aren’t communicated in a clear and concise way. UTEP Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Reza Ashtiani, Ph.D., recognized that successful engineers must have strong writing skills and set out to ensure his students developed them.
Since joining UTEP’s College of Engineering faculty in November 2012, Ashtiani has spearheaded research projects that have created many opportunities for students to gain research experience. In the course of his work with students, he discovered that many were having a hard time creating quality lab reports.
“As a professional geotechnical engineer, you should be able to communicate the ideas of the lab and field tests paired with your perceptions on the research and outcomes, and I was not seeing that (in his students’ reports),” Ashtiani said.
In response, he reached out to UTEP’s Department of English and partnered with R. Joseph Rodríguez, Ph.D., assistant professor of English education, to develop a program to bridge the gap between student’s exceptional research abilities and their struggles to write about their research.
“My contribution to the development of the learning module was defining academic writing and concepts that are transferable to professional laboratory report writing,” Rodríguez said. “These writing concepts were then complemented by the expertise of Dr. Ashtiani to create something that would prepare students to think and write like a civil engineer for the profession.”
Together, they began the project “Exploring Students’ Conceptions about Engineering Research and Scientific Writing.” The project received a $5,000 grant from UTEP for supplies, to cover student salaries, and to develop a module to help improve student writing.
“The award permitted interdisciplinary work that complements our expertise and shared interests in the students’ learning, understanding and success,” Rodríguez said.
To develop a laboratory report module, Ashtiani and Rodríguez began by determining what components are necessary to complete a lab report, and then examined previous students’ lab reports to identify the areas that require improvement.
“I prepared a document outlining the general format of a lab report – the abstract, the introduction, the lab procedure, the analysis, the results, and finally the references – so they would know what the components are,” Ashtiani said. “The goal was to develop a module that students could go through and see how to formulate their lab reports in a professional way.”
The final product is a module that walks students step-by-step through the process of compiling a professional lab report. As students navigate through each section of the module, it tracks and logs their progress to ensure they are taking the time to fully complete each portion.
“We are seeing that students are actually going through the material and moving forward,” Ashtiani said. “In turn, students are providing us with feedback about how we can enhance the module. As a result, compared to past lab reports, the quality of their lab reports has improved tremendously.”
Luvina Jurado, a senior civil engineering major, said the lab report module has allowed her to feel more comfortable writing technical reports.
“Dr. Ashtiani is a great professor who pushes us to work hard,” Jurado said. “[The lab report module] provided me with a checklist to help ensure that I was including all the information that needed to be in the report, and helped me to better follow the proper sequence of writing a lab report.”
Ashtiani also works to bring highly competitive research projects to UTEP, and has secured more than $1 million in research grants. But helping students is an equally important part of his job.
“I stepped out of my normal research area to create this module because, as faculty, we have different responsibilities,” Ashtiani said. “One part is research, but equally important parts are teaching and service. We can obviously go through the materials just in terms of the books, but we have a responsibility to our students to show them exactly what to expect when they go into the industry after graduation.”