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Reading Effectively in First Year Electromechanical Engineering Courses


Academic year: 2021

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Reading Effectively in First Year

Electromechanical Engineering Courses

Juanita C. But, Ohbong Kwon, and Henry Laboy

New York City College Of Technology/CUNY, jbut@citytech.cuny.edu,




Abstract – A college-wide reading assessment conducted in 2012 (8 sections, N=148) at New York City College of technology, or City Tech, showed that only less than 30% of our students were college ready in reading, much lower than the national average of 50% (ACT, 2012). This weakness is a major obstacle to succeed in college-level courses, especially for beginning engineering students. The reading level of engineering texts is extremely complex, with various levels of readability and specialized concepts, formula, and vocabulary. However, engineering faculty at City Tech are seldom equipped with instructional strategies to scaffold reading assignments and use formative assessments to ensure students’ completion of required readings and help them understand essential and complex ideas in engineering texts. To address this problem, a college-wide Reading Effectively Across the Disciplines (READ) program was established in Spring 2013 to improve disciplinary literacy. READ also broadly aims at increasing retention, engagement, and addressing the major issue of early and unofficial withdrawals. The targeted engineering courses in READ include EMT1130 (Electro-Mechanical Manufacturing Lab) in 2013-1014 and EMT1150 (Electrical Circuits) in 2014-2015. Both are required first-year courses for the AAS Degree in

Electro-Mechanical Engineering Technology.

Failure/withdrawal rates of both courses were over 30%. In this paper, we will give an overview of the READ program and describe how its components work together to improve student reading and performance in first-year engineering courses. Our focus is to describe our design and implementation of effective strategies, teaching and assessment tools in enhancing students’ disciplinary literacy in EMT1130 and EMT1150. We will also discuss and analyze our assessment data and pilot results, which showed significant improvement in performance and pass rates among students who were enrolled in the READ sections of both courses, EMT1130 (7 sections, N=150) and EMT1150 (3 sections, N=65), compared to those who were not.

Index Terms - Disciplinary literacy, Active reading, Reading in Electromechanical Engineering courses.


Each year, many first-year electromechanical engineering students at New York City College of Technology/CUNY encounter difficulties in completing and succeeding in their courses. Faculty members frequently attribute this to students’ lack of the scientific knowledge and quantitative reasoning skills that are required for these courses. However, what is very often overlooked is that many students struggle in these courses because they are unable to fully comprehend, adequately analyze, and ably apply the content of text material.

According to a study of the correlation between reading achievement and achievement in other academic areas, of those who did not meet the Reading Benchmark, only 41 percent met the ACT English Benchmark, only 16 percent met the ACT Mathematics Benchmark, and only 5% met the ACT Science Benchmark [1]. This reveals that the ability to read proficiently is particularly significant in learning mathematics and science subjects. These findings are especially relevant to predicting student success, based on their reading proficiency, in engineering courses, which involve reading discourses in both science and mathematics. Even though our students are required to pass the ACT-COMPASS reading test with a score of 70 (certified as proficient in reading across CUNY) in order to take most credit-level courses, passing the reading test, in some cases, is not a pre-requisite for foundational engineering courses. Students who do not meet the reading proficiency level often struggle with reading engineering text. Since the ACT benchmark score for college success in STEM disciplines is 85 or above in the COMPASS reading test, much higher than the CUNY designated passing score of 70, even among our students who met the CUNY reading requirements, a large number still falls short of the national benchmark for college success.

Further compounds this problem is that most engineering texts are complex and often require multiple literacies in academic language, symbolic and visual expressions, and everyday language.

Students who lack reading proficiency often rely on listening skills in class, rather than reading to learn [2]. Even among those who read their text material, many still cannot readily move beyond accumulating facts and


memorizing the right answers to reach a level of abstract, metacognitive thinking skills [3].

As an intervention, reading and content area faculty members collaborate to improve students’ reading proficiency and disciplinary literacy in Reading Effectively Across the Disciplines (READ), a program founded in 2013 (funded by a CUNY Office of Academic Affairs Award in 2013-2014). READ takes a novel multimodal approach to improving content area reading. Its first component is faculty development, which aims at training full-time and adjunct EMT faculty to develop and implement discipline-specific reading and formative assessment strategies, informed by the theories and practice of effective, active reading. Secondly, effective assessments are crucial to measuring students’ reading proficiency and informing the effect of strategy implementation and appropriate intervention. In both courses, pre-READ and post-READ assessments were administered to gauge students’ competencies in comprehension, interpretation, analysis, and context.

Peer-led-team-learning workshops led by trained and experienced EMT students is another component to enhance student learning. Finally, the OpenLab READ website facilitates sharing of ideas and resources among faculty and peer leaders. OpenLab is a platform developed by City Tech faculty through a Title V US Department of Education Grant. It is an open-source digital platform where students, faculty, and staff can meet to learn, work, and share their ideas. Its goals are to support teaching and learning, enable connection and collaboration, and strengthen the intellectual and social life of the college community. Our team engages in an ongoing development

of the Open Lab READ website

(https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu). After the courses’ completion, READ-EMT faculty share their course results and best practices in the subsequent workshops with their colleagues.


READ was piloted in two Electromechanical Engineering courses, Electromechanical Manufacturing Lab (EMT1130) and Electrical Circuit (EMT1150) in Fall 2013 and Fall 2014 respectively. EMT 1130 and EMT 1150 are foundational courses which students are required to take in their first year. From EMT 1130, students gain insight into selected mechanical and electrical manufacturing processes by constructing their own digital trainer. EMT 1150 introduces the basic principles of direct and alternating current circuits. Topics include linear and nonlinear passive components, transient response and phase relationships. Laboratory work is performed using the multi-meter, oscilloscope and frequency generator. Reading proficiency certification is not required for students taking both courses.

Altogether seven sections of EMT 1130 and three sections of EMT1150 participated in Fall 2013 and Fall 2014 respectively. Embedded Peer-Led Team learning was implemented in one EMT1130 section in addition to course

redesign and implementation of reading strategies, which occurred in all other sections of both courses. Student performance and pass rates of READ sections, EMT1130 (7 sections, N=150) and EMT1150 (3 sections, N=65), were compared to those in non-READ sections.

EMT 1130 takes place in a lab setting. Enrollment capacity is twenty-two. Students learn how to build a digital trainer based on demonstration and reading of a lab manual. As listed in the standardized syllabus, the learning outcomes are the ability to:

• Understand, analyze, and safely use basic electrical and electronic circuits/systems and electromechanical devices.

• Troubleshoot and fix problems in electrical circuits/systems and electromechanical devices.

• Develop skills to use the tools and instruments to build electromechanical devices.

• Function as effective contributing members of a team. • Recognize the physical laws that govern how all

electrical circuits and devices work.

• Apply fundamental mathematical principles to their electronics work.

• Calculate current, voltage, resistance, power, and recognize voltage sources, resistor color code, and VOMs.

• Wire circuits, use lab equipment, and test and troubleshoot circuits.

The final goal of the course is for students to complete final assembly and proper testing of a digital trainer box device.

From our observation, students seem to struggle most with making accurate measurements properly, and understanding the main ideas and the descriptions of procedures involved in reading the course lab manual. Making the connections between the diagrams, charts, tables, descriptions and notes on the lab manual with seeing the overall spatial-visual perception is another difficulty students often encounter. Even the proprioception and/or motor skills of the student interaction with key lab tools and machines can be challenging.

The instruction method usually involves a lecture with some explanations of the course expectations, with some time for students to gain direct guidance from course instructor. This is quite de-personalized and does not allow students to keep comfortable with asking questions for verification or confirmation, which is often required.

Even though students are required to read the lab manual before class to engage in building the components of the digital trainer, there is no built-in assessment mechanism in the course to ensure students’ completion of the assigned readings. Close reading, comprehension, and application of instructions are not only important to guide students through the manufacturing and assembling process, but are


particularly important to ensure that they observe safety measures in the lab setting.

EMT1150 is an introduction to the basic principles of direct and alternating current circuits. Topics include linear and nonlinear passive components, transient response and phase relationships. Effective reading and critical thinking skills in this course are essential in developing disciplinary competence and problem solving in the course, which are reflected in the following learning outcomes:

• Understand, analyze, and safely use basic electrical and electronic circuits/systems and electromechanical devices.

• Troubleshoot and fix problems in electrical circuits/systems and electromechanical devices.

• Recognize the physical laws that govern how all electrical circuits and devices work.

• Apply Ohm’s Law and Watt’s Law to electronic circuits, developing their basic skills of problem solving and critical thinking by solving basic problems. • Apply the basic rules of series and parallel circuits. • Analyze and simplify series-parallel circuits, use

Thevenin’s Theorem, and Wheatstone Bridge.

• Wire circuits, use lab equipment, test and troubleshoot circuits, make graphs, write lab reports, and perform computer simulations (Multisim) in lab for problem solving; develop team skills by working in small teams. • Recognize alternating current, frequency, the

oscilloscope, capacitors and inductors - in series, in parallel and in AC or DC circuits, and some important applications.

The cognitive processes involved in both the lecture and lab components include various levels of concepts and tasks that require multiliteracies in the forms of traditional text, symbolic and graphic expressions both in print and electronic sources.

The required textbook for the course is Introductory Circuit Analysis by Robert L. Boylestad. Each week students are assigned to read one chapter from the book, corresponding to the weekly learning module. Supplemental materials are available on Blackboard and OpenLab site.

Reading requirements in EMT1150 are both intensive and extensive. The main challenge students face is to manage the high volume of reading with abstract concepts, which often need to be explained clearly through concrete examples. Students also have difficulties navigating the text. Some are not motivated to read the textbook and rely mainly on the lectures to learn course material, by observing demonstrations and using their listening skills. However, the lectures do not cover all information that appear in the textbook that students need to learn.


To encourage completion of reading assignments and improve disciplinary literacy in EMT1130 and EMT1150, reading and EMT faculty members collaborated to develop and implement strategies to facilitate reading-to-learn among students. Unique tools are required for engaging in disciplinary literacy, which is “the knowledge and abilities possessed by those who create, communicate, and use knowledge within the disciplines” [4].

The activities developed to motivate students in the learning process involve pre-reading, during reading, and post-reading strategies. Our goal is to train students to become independent learners who can adeptly apply strategies that are transferable among content areas, as well as strategies that are particularly effective in developing disciplinary competence in their courses. Specific goals and purposes were set for these assignments.

ELECROMECHANICAL MANUFACTURING LAB (EMT1130) A pre-READ assessment in EMT1130 using a passage in the lab manual revealed that students in all sections struggled with comprehension, analysis, interpretation, and application of information they read. This assessment is based on a reading rubric developed by the City Tech General Education Assessment Committee. Subsequent to the assessment, strategies were used as class assignments, homework, or low-stakes assessment tools to engage students in active reading.

As a pre-reading strategy, students in EMT1130 were asked to fill out anticipation guides that require them to make predictions about the information they were going to read in the lab manual and then matched their answers according to what they learned from the text. Students chose to agree or disagree with certain statements related to the information in the lab manual before reading it. They then validated or revised their answers after reading the manual. The purpose of this set of pre-reading activities is to relate students’ background knowledge to technical information they were about to learn. This not only served to motivate students to look for specific answers in the text, but also enabled them to reflect on the reasoning behind their predictions, especially when they were not accurate.

Numerous tools and processes were involved in assembling the digital trainer. Students were required to attain precise information about the features, functions, and characteristics of different tools and components, as well as specific details in each step and how they fit into the entire assembling process. To help students retain information better and visualize the steps more clearly, we designed feature analysis charts (see Figure I) that were used as pre-lab assignments and assessment tools. These can be used repeatedly in varying formats to reinforce learning the lab manual.




Another assignment that helped students lay out a blueprint of the assembling process is the process map. It is designed as an intermediary step to translate instructions they read in the lab manual into a visual representation that could eventually guide them in accomplishing the process. Since there is more than one sequence of steps in which the digital trainer could be built, students had to critically evaluate the process and come up with a sequence that worked for them. To facilitate this, students were asked to generate a process map from the information they gained from the instructor and the lab manual. Figure II shows a version of the process map detailing the steps.



Other general reading and vocabulary activities were also used to scaffold assignments and enhance students’ reading proficiency and help them develop

transferable strategies [5] [6]. These include text annotation, the use of graphic organizers, note-taking skills, and word maps.

In addition, Peer-led Team Learning (PLTL) was also implemented in one section of the course. Three peer  

leaders were initially recruited in Fall 2013 and were enrolled in a semester long independent study course (IS 901) to receive training in facilitating small group learning among student teams of 5 to 11 students. The peer leaders engaged students in discussion, problem solving, and troubleshooting related to the course. As the semester progressed, only two peer leaders were able to lead the workshops, so the group size was about 11 students, which was relatively large. However, our peer leaders were able to work with students who were already assigned to work in pairs, which also reinforced the dynamic and benefits of team learning.


Students in EMT 1150 demonstrated weakness, particularly in analysis, and context, or application of information gained from reading, in the pre-READ assessment in Fall 2014. Our immediate task at the beginning of the semester was to help students understand text features and navigate the textbook. Given the length of each chapter and the conceptual density of text material, first year engineering students often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and complexity of concepts and information they have to learn. To familiarize students with the text, we used a textbook guide, in the form of a quiz, to introduce students to the text features. A textbook scavenger hunt was also used in some cases to encourage students to preview different sections of the textbook. These activities helped engage students in the habit of locating information in the text, overcome resistance and generate interest in reading the text.

Active reading and learning was our main emphasis during lectures. Because of the amount of material instructors need to deliver, the lectures aimed at allowing frequent interactions with students to keep them sharply involved in the learning process. It is crucial to use strategies that support active learning, with which students can understand, assimilate, and apply core concepts and mathematical procedures to solve problems that could appear to be confusing and ambiguous to novice.

At the beginning of the semester, we asked students to fill out a reading checklist, consisting of active reading strategies that can promote reading-to-learn. This gave them a sense of how actively they engaged the text when they read. A reading faculty then discussed the strategies with the students and modeled some of them to the students. The list served as a reading inventory for students, to be used when they read in class and at home.

To facilitate learning in class, modified versions of lecture slides (see Figure III) were also used. Important terminologies and theorems were boldfaced, especially in the first few chapters, in which essential concepts were introduced. In addition, key terms were also taken out from


the slides for students to fill in the blanks during lectures. This ensured active reading and helped keep students focused and alert. Writing down the terms and concepts in context also strengthened students’ retention of key information by requiring interaction with the material presented in the lectures.

FIGURE III EMT1150 Lecture slide



Students in both first-year EMT courses initially struggled with reading text material. After implementation of discipline and course specific strategies to support active reading, students showed improvement in understanding, analyzing, and applying concepts in their readings. The effectiveness of the strategies we applied was reflected in our pilot results. A comparison of final grades for READ and Non-READ EMT1130 in Fall 2013 is shown in Table I. Table II shows that of READ and non-READ EMT1150 in Fall 2014.

Students in READ EMT 1130 (7 sections, N=150) performed much better than those in the non-READ sections (5 sections, N=104). The overall pass rates (“C” or above) of READ and non-READ sections were 78.6% and 57.6% respectively. The pass rate of students in READ sections was 21% higher than those who were in non-READ. What is most significant was that 55.3% of READ students achieved an “A” in the course, a percentage that was much higher than the non-READ students, of whom only 8.6% achieved an “A.” On the contrary, only 5% of READ students failed the course (‘F”), compared to 22.1% of non-READ students. In non-READ sections, we also see a lower withdrawal rate (“W,” “WU,” “WN”). Only 13.3% of READ students withdrew officially and unofficially, while 20.2% of non-READ students withdrew from their courses.

The final grading of EMT 1130 was based on the physical layout, circuit wiring, and functionality of the digital trainer in the final testing.    



N of students students N of students % of students A A- B+ B B- C+ C PASS D F W WN WU INC Total 83 55.3% 9 22 14.7% 15 3 2.0% 11 6 4.0% 17 1 0.6% 4 2 1.3% 1 1 0.7% 3 118 78.6% 60 0 0.0% 0 9 6.0% 23 8 5.3% 14 6 4.0% 2 6 4.0% 5 3 2.0% 0 150 100.0% 104 8.6% 14.4% 10.6% 16.3% 3.8% 1.0% 2.9% 57.6% 0.0% 22.1% 13.5% 1.9% 4.8% 0.0% 100.0% Similar to EMT1130, the overall pass rate in the READ EMT1150 sections was also much higher than that in the non-READ sections (Table II). Of the 65 READ students, 56 students or 86.7% passed the course (“C” or above). Only 26 of the 44 non-READ students, or 59.1%, passed the course. The percentage of READ students who achieved “A” and “A-” were also higher than that of READ students, i.e. 30.8% in READ and 18.2% in non-READ. The withdrawal rate (“W,” ”WU.” ”WN”) in READ sections was 7.6%, much lower than the 15.9% in non-READ sections. TABLE II FALL 2014 EMT1150 FINAL GRADES Grade READ % of Non-READ N of students students N of students % of students A A- B+ B B- C+ C PASS D F W WU WN INC Total 13 20.0% 8 7 10.8% 0 4 6.2% 1 8 12.3% 5 9 13.8% 1 7 10.8% 0 8 12.3% 11 56 86.7% 26 3 4.6% 5 1 1.5% 6 3 4.6% 5 1 1.5% 2 1 1.5% 0 1 1.5% 0 65 100.0% 44 18.2% 0.0% 2.3% 11.4% 2.3% 0.0% 25.0% 59.1% 11.4% 13.7% 11.4% 4.5% 0.0% 0.0% 100.0%

The final grading of EMT 1150 students was based on quizzes (20%), class assignments (5%), midterm (25%), departmental final exam (30%), and lab component/reports (20%).


Reading assessments were used both as formative and summative measures in READ. The assessments were


administered twice in the semester. Students took the pre-READ assessment at the beginning of the semester and the post-READ assessment toward the end of the course. Reading outcomes of four areas—comprehension, interpretation, analysis, and context—were assessed when students read and answered questions on passages from their textbooks or lab manuals. A comparison between the pre-READ and post-pre-READ assessments demonstrated improvement in students’ reading proficiency in the discipline. Figure IV shows the results in READ EMT 1130 sections.

The results revealed that students in READ EMT1130 showed improvement in all four areas in the post-READ assessment. Significant gains in their ability to analyze and interpret the text were demonstrated. This improvement correlated strongly with the high pass rate and strong student performance across the READ sections, which could be attributed to, among other factors, the effectiveness of the strategies we used to foster students’ improved reading proficiency and disciplinary literacy.

The ability to analyze, through reading, the relationships among components and procedures is crucial to laying out logically and accurately the steps of the manufacturing process. This is especially important for first year students who have to adapt to learning new knowledge, performing detailed and precise tasks such as making measurements and wiring, which require the development of cognitive and motor skills simultaneously. Therefore, a thorough understanding of the procedures, the ability to make inferences and interpret the causes of specific issues occurred during the process would help students to troubleshoot and solve problems. At the basic level, active engagement with ideas and information enables comprehension, which is also the basis for questioning and finding solutions. These abilities are required for success in EMT courses.




Effective implementation is just as important as sound design of strategies in READ. Collaboration of team that consists of reading and content area faculty is crucial to the success of this program. In the EMT classroom, the instructor is not expected to teach students how to read, but to engage students in active reading and learning by using relevant assignments and instructional approaches.

The EMT and reading faculty informed each other in the process of developing strategies, directed by sound research. Reading faculty gained insight from classroom visits and discussions with EMT faculty to understand the needs and discipline-specific learning environment in each course. Through workshops and meetings throughout the semester, as a team we discussed the challenges and evaluated the effectiveness of approaches we used, and adjusted them to achieve our goals.

Goals and purposes determined the design and implementation of strategies in READ EMT sections. At a practical level, students in general are not motivated to complete assigned readings, if they are not being assessed formally or informally. Very often, colleagues complain that students do not purchase textbooks and/or do not read the assigned readings. Among many students, reading to learn remain a low priority, as they depend mainly on learning through lectures. This is even more common in certain STEM courses.

Therefore, strategies and assignments in READ are used to incite students’ interest in reading the texts, to help them relate their background knowledge to what they learn, to reinforce the completion of assigned readings, to train


them to read actively, and to apply the reading-to-learn strategies as their lifelong learning tools.

Four EMT1130 and three EMT1130 full-time and adjunct instructors participated in piloting READ in their courses. They drew upon a set of strategies that were developed in a team setting. However, not all of them used exactly the same strategies in their classes, nor did they use the strategies in a prescribed way. The judgment and input of individual instructors, catering to the needs of his/her specific group of students, significantly enriched the teaching and learning experience among the READ faculty team across the disciplines, including Biology and Dental Hygiene (Architectural Technology will be participating in Fall 2015). The READ EMT faculty not only had the opportunity to exchange best practices with the colleagues in their department, but also with those in other disciplines. Through the OpenLab platform, we can also disseminate ideas and resources and reach out to faculty members who are not part of READ.

The following are some feedback shared by our READ faculty:

• Overall good experience, presentation, showing how to better approach the students. Motivating, changed my method of teaching [adjusted, dedicating], more time to communicating effectively utilizing team-based learning efficiently, providing and referring to further resources managed to help complete the digital trainer construction.

• Workshops were well organized. We shared many ideas; different techniques were introduced to help students get involved more. These strategies can be used in and out of the classroom.

• Got the chance to speak to my colleagues in depth about the challenges we face.


Even though reading proficiency is essential to learning in every discipline, in higher education institutions there has not been enough effort in fostering disciplinary literacy through reading, especially in STEM areas. Research in engineering pedagogy seldom addresses the importance of effective reading and its role in facilitating learning in the discipline.

The demand of higher-order cognitive skills through effective reading such as application, analysis, and interpretation is ubiquitous throughout the learning process in engineering courses, as seen in the ABET criteria. Reading is embedded in acquiring knowledge in every field, and the ability to read proficiently is indispensable in engineering, for “Knowledge is the data base of a professional engineer” [7].

Having completed its second year, READ is only beginning to address the discrepancies between the requirements in the discipline and our students’ readiness in those areas. Our ultimate goal for is to enable first year students, in engineering and other disciplines, to become

independent readers, who know how to develop and use strategies to navigate complex texts in different formats and disciplines. These reading strategies, both transferable and discipline-specific, are useful to enhance their learning in college-level courses and beyond.

This can only be achieved by continuing commitment from content area faculty, department and college administrators, as well as support from our institution. Our plans are to impact more students by including more disciplines and courses and to use technologies to reach out to more students and faculty.


[1] ACT, “Reading between the lines: What the ACT reveals about college readiness in reading”, ACT, 2006, Web.

[2] Schemo, D. J., “It takes more than schools to close the gap”, The New

York Times, August 9, 2006, Web.

[3] Peters, E., Västfjäll, D., Slovic, P., Mertz, C. K., Mazzocco, K., & Dickert, S, “Numeracy and decision making”, Psychological Science,

17, pp.407–413, 2006.

[4] Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C., “Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy”, Harvard Educational

Review, 78 (1), pp.40–59, 2008.

[5] Yore, L. D., “What research says about science textbooks, science reading and science Reading instruction: A research agenda”, Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the NationalAssociation for Research in Science Teaching (59th, San Francisco, CA, March 28-April l, l986), (ERIC) ED269243.

[6] Carrell P.L., “Can reading strategies be taught?”, Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 1998, 21(1), 1998, pp.1-20.

[7] Rugarcia, A., Felder R.M. Woods, D.R., and Stice, J.E., “The future of engineering Education I. A vision for s new century”, Chemical

Engineering Education, 34 (1), 2000, pp.16-25.


Juanita C. But Associate Professor of English, New York City College of Technology, jbut@citytech.cuny.edu

Ohbong Kwon Assistant Professor of Computer

Engineering Technology, New York City College of Technology, okwon@citytech.cuny.edu

Henry Laboy Engineering Instructor, New York City College of Technology/CUNY, hlaboy@citytech.cuny.edu


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