Although Grade 12 English (or something equivalent) is one of our admission requirements, we sometimes get applicants who question what it’s good for, and why should it hurt their chances of admission if they got low marks in that subject. After all, engineering is just about physics, calculus, problem-solving, writing code, designing bridges and other hardware, …, isn’t it?
The stereotypical illiterate engineer is just that, a stereotype (and one with limited career potential too). From time to time I ask practising engineers whether they ever have to write anything, and invariably I get a laugh and incredulous look. There are monthly, quarterly, and annual reports. Project interim and final reports. Performance reviews of their staff. Client communications. Project proposals for upper management. Responses to RFPs (requests for proposals). Test reports. Literature surveys. Magazine or journal articles. Submissions to government and regulatory agencies. Project summaries for the public. And a host of other things, large and small.
Some of our high school applicants may be shocked to discover that engineers are expected to have very good communication skills, both verbal and written. In fact, industry surveys always list this among the top desirable attributes and expectations of new graduates. A lack of ability to write coherently, fluently, and succinctly, with a minimum of grammatical and spelling errors, will definitely have a career impact for graduates. Clients and companies are not impressed with reports that mix up homophones such as “there, their, they’re”, or use “effect” and “affect” incorrectly. Some companies employ professional writers for the most important documents, but if all of your written work needs editing to make it minimally acceptable, then you are a drain on the company’s bottom line.
One can argue that Grade 12 English is not a good indicator for these communication abilities, and that is probably true. For admissions purposes, that’s about all we have to work with though. That’s why we have our own English Language Proficiency Exam (ELPE) in first year, which attempts to identify those who have difficulty with writing before they get into too much trouble with advanced courses. All Waterloo students must write it, whether English is their first language or not. Passing it, or doing remedial courses, is required to advance in our engineering program.
Within our program we have various opportunities for learning and improving your technical writing, including the professional development (PD) courses, work term reports, lab reports, possibly some essays or reviews in various courses, and definitely some design reports. During work terms, students might be expected to write reports for their companies. From the work that I’ve seen, most student finish our program with pretty good writing skills, although there is still a range of abilities.