Publish your undergraduate research!
A mandatory course for master students in engineering
University of Applied Sciences
Conference Key Areas: How Learning Spaces Support Innovative T&L, Innovative
Teaching and Learning Methods, Philosophy and Purpose of Engineering Education
Keywords: active learning, challenge based learning, liminal space
During the curriculum redesign of a master course in engineering, it was decided to
enhance the ability of students …
… to express themselves effectively,
… to gain confidence in their research activities,
… to argue, reason and discuss scientifically,
… to evaluate the work of others and
… to align with scientific standards and engineering conventions.
In short, a course was created with a simple assignment: Publish your research! In the
following, we will relate our course model to existing approaches, set a perspective on
undergraduate research and evaluate course results.
1 BACKGROUND AND EXISTING APPROACHES
With the completion of their bachelor thesis, engineering students have usually carried
out and compiled a genuine piece of research. However, even with a thorough
supervision, the exposition of results and arguments often remains limited to a small
internal circle of stakeholders in a protected research environment and/or in an
examination process. The students therefore miss the learning experience of being
challenged by a broader audience of experts and peers. Such an advance into new
and open terrain may look like trouble ahead but is often the doorstep to new advances
in learning. This is well described by Meyer and Land  with the threshold concept of
learning, which can ultimately “lead not only to transformed thought but to a
transfiguration of identity and adoption of an extended discourse”. This transformation
can be stimulated by the creation of liminal spaces. Walkington et al.  have shown
that undergraduate research conferences are favourable opportunities to open such
spaces, helping students to “reformulate their taken-for-granted frames of meaning by
engaging in critical reﬂection, through a process of dialogue with others. Such dialogue
is a central element of transactional communication.” Undergraduate research
conferences like the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in the
USA exist for a long time and have spawned successful offspring in other countries.
They provide a suitable space for students to take a step beyond their classroom
barrier, offer a guided (review) process towards high-quality scientific communication
adhering to engineering standards and thus allow them grow confidence in their ability
to sustain among peers.
At an institutional level, various approaches to learn and train the written and oral
presentation of scientific work can be found. Commonly, the required skills of students
are developed throughout continuous assignments to write lab reports, project
documentations and, finally, the bachelor thesis. Ideally, the student develops her/his
own style and skills with respect to authorship by learning from various staff members,
but the learning process is rarely made explicit or guided. On the contrary, ambitious
and valuable courses like “Writing your thesis” or “Presentations for engineers” exist,
but are often offered on a voluntary basis and/or outside the faculty, see e.g. . This
can convey misleading messages with respect to developing a self-confident
authorship. It implies that communication and presentation is only an add-on for either
those with special weaknesses or special interests and may thus remain detached
from the development of the student’s identity as an engineer.
Within computer science education, an integrated approach has been proposed by
several researchers in the form of mini-conferences as a course model. This has been
successfully applied in the past to both undergraduate and graduate courses [4, 5].
With our approach, we apply a similar model to a master course in engineering,
assuming that almost none of the participants have published the research conducted
for their bachelor theses. In contrast to the courses described and referenced in 
and , our students have already completed the research work that provides the
necessary basis for paper writing and exercising communication and presentation
skills [6, 7].
2 IDEA AND GOALS
For the development of our own approach , we argue that the emergence of
scientific communication skills should not only be an explicit and integral part of the
curriculum but must be developed as a competence from within the faculty. To achieve
this, we expose all our master students to the basic standards of peer-reviewed
research and provide the opportunity to present their own work on a conference-like
level. For this, every master student has to take her/his bachelor thesis as a starting
point and expose it to a full conference publication schedule during one semester. We
therefore simulate an engineering conference which requires the student to actively
prepare, revise and present her/his paper and a poster (see Fig. 1). Thus the
publication process becomes a project with the student/author as the manager of
her/his success, placing the responsibility for the associated learning experience into
the hand of the student. Along the publication process, the students find out about
current research in their discipline and become engaged in research discussions.
According to Healy and Jenkins , this approach can be classified as research-led
and research-tutored, as the research project itself, i.e. the thesis, has been completed
before the course.
3 COURSE CONCEPT AND CONTENT
The course “Engineering Conferences” was developed for the curriculum of a master
course within a medium-sized faculty of mechanical and process engineering (approx.
1500 students) of a medium-sized University of Applied Sciences in Germany. The
course is mandatory and 6 credits according to the ECTS-scheme can be earned. The
established language of scientific communication, English, is used as a means of
instruction (EMI) throughout the full course, which is open to approx. 30 students and
Figure 1. Reducing page numbers by two orders of magnitude: Evolution of key
findings and the core message from thesis to paper to poster
can be booked every term. The underlying concept is a simulated engineering
conference, with special emphasis on the upfront publication schedule including a full
review process that employs the course participants as peers.
The detailed course outline is presented in Table 1. Special care was directed at the
design of group work exercises: Students develop content and gain learning
experience, with the lecturer standing aside serving as moderator (see exercises in
bold face of column 3 in Table 1). As an example for these active learning exercise,
the course starts with an “elevator talk” : Each student has to explain the topic of
her/his bachelor thesis to other students within two minutes. For most of them, it is the
first time talking about their thesis topic in English in a very limited period of time and
with the aim to convey a message. This deliberate push beyond the student’s comfort
zone is turned into confidence by one or two repetitions.
To model the paper submission and review process, the free web-based conference
management system EasyChair is used, which allows to set deadlines, upload papers,
define roles such as authors, reviewers and chairs, organize reviews etc. This is not
only easy to use for teachers and students but also a real conference standard. After
Table 1. Course Outline: Tasks and Exercises
(bold face: group work)
The shape of science
How to find a scientific paper
identify own field of work
identify position on science map
find example paper
Reading, understanding and
evaluating a scientific paper
“Elevator talk”: my thesis is about …
study example paper
conduct a simple review
present findings to group
Finding related work and peers
identify important work of others
understand and relate to own work
Developing a thread and structure
identify core results and/or message
collect and arrange headlines,
graphs and main arguments
Paper layout / references:
Referencing and reference styles
Organizing a bibliography and
use example tool for finding, editing,
and archiving references
apply reference style to example
Paper layout / style:
Editing and publishing tools
Paper style guide and template
learn and test the capabilities of
get familiar with paper style guide
Exam element: paper submitted (Week 8)
Quality control and improvement
identify elements, stakeholder,
effects and defects of review
peer-papers of other authors in class
Exam element: two reviews conducted (Week 10)
Designing a scientific poster
arrange information and layout
evaluate story and effect
Exam element: poster presentation day (public, Week 15)
the paper submission, students are requested to conduct two blind reviews of papers
submitted by their peers in class. This includes filling out a review form, which requires
to state a reason for each rating and also the upload of the reviewed paper with the
reviewer’s annotations. If nothing else, the latter is an important and visual verification
of the engagement of the reviewer with the papers. In real life, reviewers are
volunteers, highly motivated, and usually concerned about their scientific reputation.
This intrinsic motivation cannot be expected from all our students but at least some
extrinsic motivation is installed, since the course rating is partly dependent on the
quality of the reviews.
The last part of the course is dedicated to the preparation of the poster. The poster
presentation day is the final event of the course and takes place in the main entrance
hall of the faculty building (see Figure 2). While each student has to deliver a two-
minute keynote on her/his research topic, the others are free to browse the final
product of their peers or to answer questions of visiting faculty members and students.
Both poster and keynote are assessed by the lecturers on the spot resulting in the final
grade for the course.
Credits for the course are earned for the poster presentation (counts 60%) and the
paper including two peer reviews (40%).
4 EXPERIENCE AND REFLECTION
Until now, we have organized and applied the conference concept in the form of a
paper submission and poster presentation four times in successive semesters. Over
a hundred participants in the mandatory course achieved an average course results
of 91%. According to the anonymous self-assessment of the students, evaluated
summer 2017, at least 70% of the participants noticed the improvement of their
communication skills which can be seen as a success with regards to the goals set in
the introduction and section 2. The review process and subsequent evaluation by the
lecturers shows a high quality of the submitted papers. The goal to publish research
according to international conference standards is met by about 50% of the submitted
papers in the course.
Figure 2. Poster presentation day Figure 3. Evaluation of learning goals
agree agree disagree strongly
"The activities in the lessons and the paper
writing + review have helped me to improve
my ability to argue, to reason and to express
(n = 33)
The implementation of the course “Engineering Conferences” has led to a significant
increase of activity among both faculty staff and students in social networks for
researchers and scientists such as ResearchGate, thus increasing the visibility of
research of our university. This effect is boosted by the final event of the poster
presentations which vividly enhances scientific and informal exchange within the home
faculty and its neighbouring faculty. The poster presentation is now an established bi-
annual public event and it stands as one of the rare events in the curriculum where
the result of learning is proudly made visible outside the classroom. In the course
evaluation, students are very positive about this culminating event. They express
personal satisfaction based on their success in delivering their research, which
indicates that some of the engagement for a real conference can be captured.
However, the real conference remains the ultimate experience: Voluntary participation
and a rigorous selection process are key drivers to self-motivation and “one-off”
experience. Due to the course, we see a steep increase of interest among students to
pursue their own research project with a focus to publish. With a local sponsorship of
the Association of German Engineers (VDI) we are able to reward three conference
participations per year for the best papers from the course. It has to be noted that not
all students are happy with the effort required to master the course, especially those
who are not interested in a research career. Despite the expressed improvement in
effectiveness and precision with respect to communication in the engineering
profession (see Fig. 3) the students do not yet realize this as a gain for a career in
For the course preparation as well as during course delivery we make extensive use
of the vast resources available on scientific writing practices and research
communication. Here, we highlight two sources that have already appeared to be
useful to a large community: Firstly, the survival guide on paper writing by Holst ,
salted with worldly-wise glimpses behind the scene and peppered with sketches by
Jorge Cham, the maker of PhDcomics.com. Secondly, the compilation of the reference
style required by the American Psychological Association (APA), provided by the
University of Queensland Library . It provides a precise answer, including
examples, to the question of how to cite virtually anything. The following keywords are
suitable to find more useful resources related to scientific publishing; they are loosely
arranged in the order of increased caution required when employed in class: DOI.org,
IMRaD-Style, JabRef, Shape of Science, ResearchGate, PhDcomics, SciGen,
Eventually, we found ourselves doing research in teaching methods and scientific
communication, resulting in a recursive learning – research – teaching experience.
Since the course “Engineering Conferences” was our first genuine team teaching
experience, we ourselves had entered liminal space and considerably stimulated our
life-long learning adventure. How did this work out for our students?
From the beginning the students are pushed out into the open and exposed to active
learning experiences such as group activity and, overall, to master their publication
process as their own project. This became especially apparent, when students were
challenged to express their rationale, e.g. in outlining the main theme or thread of their
work. A gain in literacy and thus confidence in their own work was observed from one
lesson to the next whenever the student was willing to engage with her/his research.
Many students openly expressed that genuine research on the work of others in the
field was a first-time experience for them as a result of the course, and that they wished
to have known about these findings during their thesis. We thus witnessed at various
occasions that troublesome knowledge led to transformed thought and dialogue acted
as a central element of transactional communication . Such “magic moments” are
likely to occur by opening liminal spaces, which small active learning elements can
provide as well as the overall exposure to a conference situation.
A master course module was designed, implemented, and tested with the goal to
improve scientific communication skills of engineering students. As the name
“Engineering Conferences” suggests, training is based around a mock-up conference,
where students have to present the results of their bachelor thesis in a paper and as
a poster. The combination of the following features distinguishes the course concept
from similar approaches:
1. It has a storyline (conference participation)
with a public finish (poster presentation day).
2. It engages undergraduate students as researchers
and it turns the publication of their bachelor thesis into a project.
3. It is mandatory for all master students of the engineering faculty.
4. It is delivered by teachers/researchers from within the faculty,
i.e. from “engineering native speakers”.
5. It can easily be copied and integrated into any STEM curriculum.
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