While engineering education scholars continue to push for undergraduate writing instruction to align with professional genres (Yoritomo, Turnipseed, & Cooper, 2018), the science communication field argues that STEM programs should also train students to be adept at writing to engage the public as a way to enact identities as experts in their field (Baram-Tsabari & Lewenstein). However, what shape such writing projects can take within engineering research programs and evidence that they support such learning goals is currently understudied. This qualitative discourse analytic study explored what affordances and constraints a writing for public communication project offers undergraduates working to enact engineering identities. We explored two research questions:
RQ1: In what ways and to what degree of success did the authors (undergraduate engineering students) position themselves as engineering researchers and engineers through their texts?
RQ2: To what extent did students value writing for the public?
Fourteen diverse undergraduate students took part in an intensive summer program in photovoltaic solar energy engineering research at a university in southwestern US. In parallel with their lab research projects, participants took part in a writing project to share their knowledge of solar cell manufacturing and research with the public. Challenged to communicate their new PV knowledge using a medium and genre of their choice, two students contributed to Wikipedia entries, one wrote an essay for the social media platform Reddit, and other students completed various YouTube videos and other projects. Presumably, contributing to such public platforms allows students to take on the role of expert as well as recontextualize engineering knowledge for the public (Myers, 2003).
The student writing projects were analyzed using discourse analysis (Gee & Green, 2010) and multimodal analysis (Jewitt & Oyama, 2001) to examine how students enacted positions through roles and relationships vis-a-vis the reader, and the extent to which they were successful in their positioning (RQ1). We also examined the response of the community as further evidence of success. Post-project interviews were coded through thematic analysis (Saldana, 2015) (RQ2).
Analysis of artifacts suggests that students enacted the role of expert and related to audiences from places of authority about engineering research and PV manufacturing. Moreover, they re-contextualized engineering discourse into public discourse, and used academic talk moves, such as hedging, to express degrees of certainty. Analysis of post-project interviews indicated that students overall found communicating with the public a worthwhile endeavor and an important part of their program experience. The longer paper expands on these findings and make recommendations for practice, and implications for public communicative platforms.
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