Engineering Writing Guide
Engineering students learn to apply mathematical methods and scientific knowledge to complex technological problems. Engineering at Swarthmore also stresses the social side of technical issues. Often students will be asked to generalize from a specific result or an algorithm to a broader application in less controlled situations or circumstances.
Two kinds of writing assignments are commonly assigned in engineering classes at Swarthmore: papers and laboratory reports. Papers are based upon library research rather than on experiments done by the student. Their purpose is to explain a topic to an intelligent but uniformed reader. Laboratory reports describe an experiment that the student has performed. These reports are written for a more informed audience.
Papers: Choose a specific topic, use well-organized paragraphs, cite your sources, and follow the other conventions of good writing.
Lab Reports: Click here for general laboratory report guidelines. Sections may be added or missing from the ones you will be asked to include, so check with your professor. Because there is no universal format for engineering reports, check out specific laboratory report guidelines online from Professor Molter and Professor Maxwell.
Engineering labs differ from labs done for other sciences at Swarthmore in that they aren't presented in "cookbook" style. This means that there are no "correct" results known beforehand; the experiments do more than test a student's ability to perform a set of steps whose results reaffirm her knowledge from class. Perhaps more than in other science labs, students create much of the process themselves. Often, the greatest challenge in writing a laboratory report for engineering is to explain results that don't conform with predictions. It is recommended that students deal with this by exploring margins of error; for example, "if this reading was 2% off, then the rest of my data would make sense because...." Students should also admit when they don't know why something happened - ignorance is not a crime.
Students should clearly explain the ideas involved in the lab. This has two main components; first, there should be no ambiguity as to what happened - state clearly that X acted on Y and make sure that all referents are clear (vague pronoun references are a common pet peeve among professors). Second, ideas must be presented in a logical order that can be followed. This does not necessarily mean chronological order - often concepts that were discovered after a certain event need to be presented before that event in the lab report or else the event won't make any sense. Students should not merely describe what happened; instead, they should start with concepts that are familiar ground for the reader and move from there to more complex ideas. Most importantly, a person who has not performed the experiment should be able to understand what happened. It can be difficult to describe an experiment well to someone who was not present - describing apparati and procedures is hard because one has to put a mental picture into words. To compound this difficulty, engineers tend to think graphically; however, this can make writing difficult.
One more thing to keep in mind: Data and phenomena are plural, while datum and phenomenon are singular.
Laboratory reports are organized into distinct, independent sections. Sections may be added or missing from the ones listed below, but these are the most common:
Consists of a clear statement of the specific question that you are trying to answer, and what you did to answer it. Background information should explain logically why the study was undertaken, and all facts/opinions should be well supported with examples or references.
Materials and Methods
The trick here is getting the correct level of detail. You want to include every step or condition that might have affected the outcome of the experiment (i.e. temperatures and concentrations), while keeping the section short. Make sure that the reason for each step is clear and that the experimental design is understandable. This section, along with the Results section, should be written in the past tense.
The results section should start with a qualitative discussion, not with numbers. When you get to the numbers, check to make sure that they are well presented in a labeled figure. The idea is that graphs are often divorced from their text, so the figure caption should give some context: where the data are from and what they show. Any general statement that you make should be supported by your data. Interesting patterns or trends should be pointed out, but their implications get discussed in the Discussion section.
Make sure that this section relates the results to the predictions made in the Introduction, and that the conclusions you draw are in line with your previously presented data. When drawing conclusions, the distinction between fact and possibility should be clear (it is hard to "prove" anything). Try to generalize beyond your specific experiment, ask some questions that remain unanswered, and identify the limitations of your study or any flaws. Be aware that a common error is to treat unexpected results as your own fault, rather than interpreting unusual data using scientific reasoning.
List last names and first initials. Printed sources are preferred over web sites.
When the ideas in your laboratory report are well developed and the arguments are strong, you're ready to polish. As you would with any paper, check for good transitions, syntax, grammar (data is plural), and word choice (theory, prediction, and hypothesis have very specific scientific meanings). Look to pare down your report as much as possible: concision is key, especially for the type of writing that gets published in scientific journals.