Final Group Project

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Posted on 24 May 2013 22:17

Write It Do It

Abstract

Engineering requires both an ability to solve problems and communicate solutions properly. The purpose of this experiment was to analyze a specific communications exercise and to understand the elements involved in
communicating a solution to a problem with certain limitations such as time and lack of imagery. Separating 10 teams of two allowed for a “Writer” and “Doer” to attempt in the recreation of predetermined models; their efforts provided insight into the pros and cons of different methods of communication in approaching a problem. Ultimately, since the experiment and results were mostly qualitative, the experiment proved useful in revealing what workshops and skill sets should be further explored and expanded upon for the education of young engineers, such as ourselves.

Introduction

Many young and aspiring high school engineers had the opportunity to participate in their Science Olympiad challenges. A common exercise they would encounter was the infamous "Write It Do It." The exercise carried out as follows: You have teams of two who are split into the "writer" and the "doer." The writer observes a figure constructed of simple materials and is given a limited amount of time to jot down his/her method of describing the witnessed diagram in an effort to communicate to his/her respective "doer" partner. Once their time is up, the "doer" then has a limited amount of time to interpret the "writer's" communication, utilize provided materials, and attempt to recreate the figure initially introduced to the "writer." The beauty of this experiment is that it both serves as a team building exercise to bring engineers closer together as well as allows engineers to personally view what elements of communication they can improve upon. At the initial hatching of our idea, it was unclear as to how we would quantify and find concrete results after carrying out our experiment with the students of the engineering class. However, when all was done and recorded, we realized that our experiment, while it requires some refinement, can go an incredibly long way in enhancing the writing skill sets of CCNY's future engineering students.

Method

Materials:
Plates, Balloons, Thumbtacks, Popsicle sticks, Cups, Clear tape, Rubber Bands
Setting: Classroom in the NAC Building, Computers included

Phases:
1. Building the original materials
Three objects were built for the original objects. The three objects were built out of the materials listed above. There were no constraints for building these structures, but they were built within a reasonable timeline of 30 minutes.

2. Writing Phase
After building the original structures, three stations were set up for each of the structures. Ten people were randomly selected and set up around the three structures: three people on structure one, four people on structure two, and three people on structure three. The subjects were instructed to describe the object as best as they could to a person that would reconstruct the object. There were a few constraints on the writers in this phase: the subjects could not draw any pictures, use any pictures from the internet, or upload any pictures themselves. The writers had to type everything on a Word Document and number their paper according to their group number/structure number. There was no limit on words allowed, but there was a twenty-five minute time limit. The rest of the class was asked to wait outside. When finished, the subjects were asked to email their work to one of the researchers.

3. Building Phase
The writers were asked to leave the classroom and to leave their Word Documents open on computers. The original structures were also hidden away from sight. The rest of the class was asked to come in (also randomly selected) and were asked to sit at their group number. They were told that they would have a 10 dollars worth recompensation for having the “best” build. The subjects were then asked to reconstruct the object that is described in the Word Document in front of them. The subjects were given more materials than were needed to build the original structures and were allowed to ask for more material. After completion, pictures of the structures were taken.

4. Analysis
The written work was analyzed for non-subjective recurrences, and these recurrences were correlated with the consequent structure. The data that was collected is completely qualitative.

Results

Compositional Style
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1: Listed materials
2: Asked to work “from bottomup”
3: Used analogies
4: Description
5: Instruction
6: Orientation

Discussion

Structure 1
The first three groups were assigned to structure 1, and there were many consistencies among the three groups. Looking at group 1, we found that they used a list format to instruct their partner in guiding them to build the structure. Moreover, we found that Group 1 listed the materials used prior to listing instructions, which is crucial to technical writing because other groups didn’t list the exact number of materials used, causing the “doer” to use all their materials given, although it was more than actually needed. We noticed that group 1’s description didn’t flow in chronological order (i.e. they didn’t start from the bottom or start from the top), they were all over the place. In contrasts, groups 2 and 3, which also looked at structure 1, both made it clear that they were starting from the bottom and then gave instructions working up to the top. What’s interesting to note is that groups 2 and 3, who both used a chronological instruction, both performed worse than group 1. This is probably due to the fact that the doers were not attentive to the directions written. We think that when applied to an engineering task, the technical writing should definitely start with a list of materials, as group 1 successfully did, but also should be in chronological order, as groups 2 and 3 did. Group 3 used analogies in their technical instruction, which did not work well for them. Analogies are tricky when it comes to technical writing because unless these analogies are very well known, sometimes the reader will misinterpret them, as they did in Group 3.

Structure 2
In the compositions of groups 4 to 7, there were also other creative characteristics between the writing styles of some of the groups. In both groups 4 and 7, the description of the design of the face-like top portion of the structure as being a “clock”, with the various features being placed at different “hours”, allowed the builder to gain a good sense of where the positions of the various thumbtacks and rubber bands were. The composers would refer to a certain material being located at “6 o’clock”, in order to approximate its location on the plate.

Furthermore, in every group’s composition (except for group 7), the description of the final product as being a face was greatly helpful in the structure’s construction since it gave the builder an idea of what the structure should look like in the end. Interestingly enough, group 7, which didn’t mention a face in their composition, ended up being the most inaccurate as the top portion of the structure was completely off and had no resemblance to being a face at all. This mention of a face was so important that even group 6, whose composition was the shortest of the four and lacked a finished description due to lack of time, did a better job of recreating an actual face because of this detail.

An interesting feature of the winning group (group 5) involves the use of a pure description of what the structure should look like instead of a step-by-step walkthrough on how to create it. This different from the other groups, who relied on very technical instructions and even an itinerary of materials used to guide their partners.

Structure 3
In group 8, the writer developed the instructions in steps. There were, in total, eight steps. He first focused on structure description about the plates. After including structural steps, he then went on to more detail. The writer used rotational degrees for the builder to orient the rubber pieces. He mentioned the materials, colors, and position. In addition, the main steps were bolded to give the steps importance. On the other hand, the description was not as accurate - especially the distance among the popsicle sticks.

For the doer, he was not confused at first; he started by first building the main structure. The sticks, however, were inserted into the wrong position. The balloon in the center was also deflated on purpose, but the rest of the details were almost right — including the rubber bands and thumbtacks. Although it is not inclined, the details almost matched that of the original.

In group 9, the writer also separated the instructions into steps. The first step was about the base. He began from the base and built it up to the top. An interesting feature involved him mentioning the inclined angle to be 30 degrees. And the “structure steps” were followed by “details steps.” He mentioned the colors of each tack and rubber, but the position was incorrectly stated.

For the doer, the structure was wrong again. The doer was confused with the structure due to the inclined angle. He built it up from base to the top. The details were almost accurate but the plates were still not inclined. In addition, the popsicle sticks’ positions were also incorrect.

The writer for group 10 used very simple steps in his/her description. She started from the cups at the bottom and built the structure towards the top. She also mentioned the angle between two plates. She wrote down the colors in order, so it became convenient for the doer to follow. Everything else was put in order, and the instructions were very concise. The brief instructions weren’t confusing for the builder to read, and there was a “flow” to the instructions that allowed the doer to build the piece at a consistent pace. This set of instructions was the shortest and the most efficient.

The doer directly and quickly followed the steps. The basic structure was completed in a short amount of time, and the details were added immediately after. Other than a small mistake regarding the rubber bands at the top, this build had the closest resemblance to the original structure.

Conclusion

We have realized that we do not have adequate information to judge whether or not our classmates can write effective technical descriptions. The following were some of the encountered and unforeseen variables:
• Time constraint was a direct detriment to results ; The writers did not have sufficient enough time to properly edit their compositions
• People do not always follow directions — regardless of how well they are written
• Colloquial language, with regards to analogies, aren't always interpreted the same from person to person

While we did not answer our original question of testing the effectiveness of writing for engineers, we were able to gather data on interesting trends, evaluate which of these trends were beneficial, and understand which were actually detrimental to the end result.
• Most of the compositions reflect that the writers did not really consider whether the doers would understand their coding
• The compositions that were strict, consistent, and had either descriptions or instructions, had a stronger directive voice and resulted in better structures
• Nobody reads the fine print
• Nobody reads about the materials
• Familiar analogies and methods of orientation are successful

The Future

We hope that our results have shed some light on the writing habits of freshman engineering students. It is important to keep in mind that the time constraint did not quite allow students to edit accordingly, but that the results still give a good idea of how students are thinking when they're writing this sort of description.

In the future, this exercise can be recreated on larger scales, different variable control (such as time constraints and forms of communication), and serve as a tool towards developing a more efficient communications curricula for freshman engineering students.

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