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Engineering Innovation Through Rhetorical Invention

A “What-How-Why” diagram integrates the thinking that chemical engineers need to cover as they design the work of a project, with the thinking that they need to do in order to communicate that work to an audience.

Published in Professional Communication Conference (IPCC), 2016 IEEE International:

Teaching engineering students to innovate—to develop novel solutions, new applications, or original designs for solving problems—is becoming a more central concern in engineering education. Many programs are increasing the number of project-based courses, to provide students with the conditions in which innovation might occur, yet innovation remains difficult to teach directly. In one such course in Chemical Engineering, we introduced a framework to aid students in exploring the central questions of their projects, from how to define the problem, to how to recognize the value of previous approaches to specific technical challenges, to how to interpret the results of innovative research. This framework, which we call a “What-How-Why” diagram, integrates the thinking that chemical engineers need to cover as they design the work of a project, with the thinking that they need to do in order to communicate that work to an audience. We have found that this framework helps students to plan their work, to recognize potential areas for specific innovation, to better recognize the significance of variations in research design, and to communicate innovative solutions more effectively.


Suzanne Lane
Written by
Suzanne Lane

Suzanne Lane is Senior Lecturer in Rhetoric and Communication, and Director of the Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication (WRAP) program. As an undergraduate at MIT, she studied Chemical Engineering, and after working as a research engineer for a couple of oil companies, she studied writing in graduate school, at the University of Colorado (Master's), and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (PhD). Her dissertation research applied genre theory and discourse analysis to fugitive slave narratives and academic histories of slavery, and defined narrative forms of argumentation that enslaved Americans developed to counter the dominant justifications for slavery.

Before joining MIT, she taught at Harvard, where she was also a researcher on the Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing. In that research, she explored how students learn discipline-specific genres and forms of argumentation, and transfer them to new locations.

Suzanne also co-directs ArchiMedia, a research lab that investigates how digital media is shaping professional communication practices, and how digital tools can be used (and designed) to teach professional communication.

Andreas Karatsolis
Written by
Andreas Karatsolis

Andreas Karatsolis joined MIT in the Fall of 2013 as the Associate Director of Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication, after spending five years in Qatar with Carnegie Mellon University. His disciplinary training includes a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Communication with an emphasis on technical/professional communication in science-related fields, which is at the core of his teaching and research efforts. In his new role at MIT and as a member of the Administrative Committee of the IEEE Professional Communication Society, he is primarily interested in designing curricula and tools which can help engineers and scientists develop life-long competencies in communication. In the past seven years he has also been the Lead of co-Principal Investigator in projects related to the design, implementation and assessment of learning technologies, especially in the domains of language learning, health communication and public discourse. As a native of Greece (and a reader of Ancient Greek texts), he also enjoys conversations on Classical Rhetoric and its relationship to contemporary scientific communication.

Suzanne Lane Written by Suzanne Lane
Andreas Karatsolis Written by Andreas Karatsolis