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On Writing Engineering Cases
(Proceedings of ASEE National Conference on Engineering Case Studies, March 1979) by Geza Kardos, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario. and C.O. Smith, University of Nebraska, Omaha, Nebraska This paper is also available in clear text form, and in WordPerfect format.

Introduction What is an Engineering Case? How Engineering Cases are Used What's in a Good Case? Which Engineering Case to Write? Collecting Case Content Getting the Words on Paper Rescript References

With wider acceptance and use of Engineering Cases in engineering education, there is a new form of engineering writing available. This paper presents some ideas based on our experience with cases over the last ten years, including writing over 25 cases (good or bad), assisting with several studentwritten cases, using cases extensively in our courses, and reviewing many cases, e.g., for Engineering Education. Use of Engineering Cases is still in its infancy; as use matures, things will change. We have adopted many ideas suggested by colleagues reviewing our cases. We have also drawn heavily on ideas from case writing for business schools. We do not view this as a definitive paper on case writing. We present these ideas as a compilation which may be useful to those who are considering writing cases and wonder what it is about. We also offer our compilation to seasoned case writers as a position with which to differ.

What is an Engineering Case?
"Engineering Case", "Case", and "Case Study" are used loosely and interchangeably in engineering. others may prefer broader or narrower definitions, but to us an Engineering Case is: an account of an engineering activity, event or problem containing some of the background and complexities actually encountered by an engineer. A case is used in engineering courses to enhance learning about engineering principles and practices. An Engineering Case differs from a technical article in which an author tries to make his point as simply and directly as possible using a logical sequence for presenting findings, conclusions, and opinions. This sequence seldom reflects how the engineer arrived at his point. In contrast, an Engineering Case describes a series of events which reflects the engineering activity as it actually happened, warts and all. The case writer suppresses his own opinions and conclusions so the reader can deal with the information and learn from the experience of drawing his own conclusions. Because cases differ from other writing, an aspiring case writer should read a variety of cases to see



To make a case believable to the reader. What's in a Good Case? Engineering Cases differ from other engineering writings. reasoning. 4. Some of the more common uses of Engineering Cases are: 1.. although there are exceptions. One essential in writing cases is to have in mind at least one way in which the case will be used by students. Background and source for design projects. Imparting additional specific information is relatively minor and coincidental.g. 3. Setting Personalities Sequence of events Problems Conflicts Cases come in many varieties. 5. i. Motivation for laboratory work. Consists of one or more parts. How Engineering Cases are Used.e. Because a case is intended for one use does not. 2. students may be required to carry out analysis indicated by the situation or they may be required to complete an analysis started in the case. students can evaluate problems. 3. to identify and formulate problems to be solved.civeng.. applying knowledge. (3) They may be used for practice in analysis. A good case: 1. (2) They may be illustrations of some form of engineering activity which students critically evaluate against what they have learned in more formal courses.. Engineers are not well versed in the history or traditions of their profession. they are not difficult. Authors who can write good technical reports or journal papers are not necessarily able to write good cases. drawing conclusions) takes place. 4. Case writing skills can be learned. they propose problems to be solved. each part usually ending with problems and/or points for discussion. and situations in the case. Includes sufficient data for the reader to treat problems and issues. 7. Subjects for class discussion. analyzing. problems which may be in the case or may be posed by the instructor. The major objective of an Engineering Case is to provide a medium through which learning (e. there are certain characteristics found in most good cases.e. negate its usefulness for other purposes.WRITING ENGINEERING CASES Page 2 of 7 the many forms they may take.carleton. i. Practice in formulating problems. 5. students may be required to read the case.ca/ECL/cwrtng. of course. 2. A different mind-set and approach are necessary.html 1/27/2009 .. http://www. Is taken from real life (a necessity).g. Reading assignments to acquaint students with various aspects of engineering. 2. (1) They may simply be a history of an engineering activity. 3. 6. e. people. Medium for relating engineering history. (4) They may be springboard cases. Background to specific problems. or are starting points for design projects. a good case usually includes: 1. cases are one way to develop these.

What is left out is often as important as what is included. Information in real life is received. the technical problems. Background data should be used sparingly.ca/ECL/cwrtng. therefore. can truth be preserved. Since cases are real-life engineering situations.. Although a case is a tool for learning. As a general rule any information students should be expected to know from their undergraduate programs need not be included. To accomplish this. they are not guessing contests for students. too few and the case seems lifeless . they are not a photographic slice of life. Cases are not examples. Don't yield. An Engineering Case is an instrument for student learning. Therefore. even that which is internalized. People are involved in engineering activities. it can not do the teaching. the narrative stream must support. but not dominate. Facts should not be changed to tell "how it should have been done.WRITING ENGINEERING CASES Page 3 of 7 Engineering cases do not represent "good" or "bad" engineering. i. A careful balance is necessary on including personalities. so it must be in writing cases. Likewise. The case writer must present facts so the student using the case can identify with an engineer in the case. technological methods are chosen to suit the needs of a project. they are made little by little as new data are acquired. Most engineering activities have two or more events occurring simultaneously. cases reflect all sorts of engineering activity. The objective is not to tell all the facts and results but to give just enough facts for students to become involved in the case. decisions are not delayed until all the facts are in.e. the case writer must present the facts in such a way that students will become involved. pertinent information should be included. Engineering problems rarely come neatly packaged as textbook problems do." Cases must have a ring of truth to them. the sequence of decisions should also be apparent. The sequence in which information is received usually influences how a project is undertaken.too many and students focus on personalities and turn the case into a human relations problem. "flashbacks" or appendices may be used to introduce these data and avoid tedious prologues. The more nearly the case presents the data as they became available to the engineer in the case. Writers are tempted to present only information which will lead students to preconceived conclusions. what did he see as the problem? What facts were available? What events led up to the situation? What resources were available? What were the constraints on his actions? A case should be like an adventure or mystery story in which the student becomes engrossed because he wants to know what will develop. Where large quantities of data become necessary. failures and successes.civeng. this should be reflected in the case. theoretical and empirical results.html 1/27/2009 . It should be remembered that in engineering practice. the student must be allowed as wide a choice of conclusions as the engineer in the case. old and new techniques. Only by "telling it like it is". Consideration should be given to http://www. it is valuable to preserve this sequence and time frame so far as possible. Cases must reflect this. Specialized. over a period of time. Attempts to put tight limits on case material to meet course requirements usually lead to failure. especially if technical problems become difficult. This must be tempered by the fact that engineering cases should focus primarily on technical issues. The background of the more important people should be given. A case should introduce personalities by name. First hand data necessary to treat the problems should be included. Simply recording what happened does not produce a good case. only in sufficient quantity to permit a student to proceed. the more useful the case. This is why case writers find it difficult to locate and write cases that illustrate specific points in engineering courses. a case is usually written from the point of view of one individual in the case.carleton. In case writing. Engineering is done by people.

Cases are the same way. companies involved. Real life problems do not end cleanly and concisely. Good case material is often a matter of serendipity. This is an easy way to start. Which Engineering Case to Write? Look for an interesting project that illustrates any theory.html 1/27/2009 . but without changing any other facts. 5. however incomplete.civeng. case writers must depend on other sources. 3. If a case writer also becomes interested he is on his way to writing a case. however. or it can be put in the instructor's note. rather than for situations that illustrate specific pieces of interesting theory or application. and/or locations. Once you have identified a case you must collect the story. 4. projects run into one another. reduce effectiveness of a case. should necessarily be shunned. It can be the last section of the case. If an acquaintance tells you about. an interesting project. Expressing opinions Stating important issues Expressing personal philosophy Establishing character Expressing differences of opinion Increasing believability One unique aspect of cases is that they seldom have a clear cut-off point. An instructor' s note is most valuable for this purpose. We differ some on this point. An excellent case can be written entirely from news items.ca/ECL/cwrtng. the greater part of learning takes place in wrestling with the problems in the case. not in knowing how it turned out. a degree of reality is lost. one approach is to use only titles or references to positions or departments. we prefer to change names of principals. Collecting Case Content. Even if the case relies heavily on written material. Quality of a case is not measured in terms of its technical content but in terms of its usefulness as instructional material.) When a case is disguised. they can be used quite effectively for: 1. (Not that knowing the outcome. Cases usually end when the writer runs out of data. etc. 2. Questions throughout the body of a case. it gives him a starting point for using the case. although these can restrict use of a case. Most professors start writing cases using their own experiences. In using cases. magazine articles. He must have scope to manoeuvre and help students with their learning. We believe the less a writer intrudes into the case the better. Questions at the end of sections where there is a break are acceptable.carleton. Without names. but we agree that writers' opinions should be restricted to the instructor's note. http://www. or if you read about. The real starting point of a good case is that somebody has found a specific engineering activity interesting. posed by the writer rather than by a participant.WRITING ENGINEERING CASES Page 4 of 7 the instructor who will be assisting a class to use the case. Questions posed for the reader by the writer are controversial. all the information is at hand. or they end with a problem. a potentially good case is available. loose ends abound. Beyond personal experiences. an interview with at least one participant can provide a story line and insights unobtainable any other way. actions are taken. Quotations should be considered. things happen. The case can also be written in the first person. 6. This usually means interviewing one or more engineers (and/or others) involved in the project.

then you can turn to getting the real story behind that. Before completing the interview. to give some feeling for the time required for various stages. With this information you should have enough to write a case. we would advise him to write novels and reap some financial harvest. Were there any difficulties in completing the project or was it a "breeze"? Be sure the details needed for writing the case are properly recorded. why he became an engineer. etc. to complete the case. magazine article. If any sketches were made during the interview. If one has this talent. Typical questions are: 1. If you get the interviewee really interested in telling his story. Try to get copies of: original calculations. and individuals. This can often be done by telephone. usually specific details. Be sure to get names and titles of other individuals involved. work experience. Don't be surprised if you don't get all you need on the first interview. photographs (especially models or prototypes).ca/ECL/cwrtng. It may then be simply a matter of getting permission to reprint the article. himself. it may take longer! Some degree of rapport is necessary. One important property of Engineering Cases is that they are believable. review the critical stages. critical memos or letters. People will speak freely about their difficulties in an engineering activity only when they are confident they will have full opportunity to correct any erroneous or damaging impressions. This often also supplies pertinent background information about the company. evaluate its usefulness. They must be allowed to tell it this way the first time. When he has told his story in his own way. or by asking for clarification of some comments. problems. you might start with questions relating to. Most engineers recall their actions as the result of a series of logical decisions.html 1/27/2009 . etc.carleton. In requesting an interview. Interrupt just enough to let him know you are interested and to keep him talking. and once discussion starts. http://www. Development of a case may take some library research. A quick review of the time sequence. schedules. you must listen for what is not said. illustrative sales literature. engineering drawings. decisions. or technical paper. the interviewee will be reviewing the final version anyway. you must listen critically to what is said. the recorder is forgotten. is valuable. It is sometimes suggested that fictional cases should be written to better illustrate specific aspects of engineering. By reference to things he has casually mentioned. A news item.WRITING ENGINEERING CASES Page 5 of 7 In soliciting information from any source it must be made clear that the case will not be published without prior consent of the individual or agency supplying the material. Were any solutions other than the final one considered? Why were they rejected? What were the trade-offs? 2. If interest starts from a news item. A tape recorder simplifies interviewing. which we all know how to do. The objective is to have him tell the story in his own words.civeng. technical education. or it may take a visit to a newspaper files at a later date. then writing some introductory material and points for discussion at the end. Even with it you must be an active listener who prompts the speaker to give detail. sketches. a regular watch for continuing items may provide the material. you should suggest a period of about two hours. may spark interest in a case. To write a truly believable fictional case requires a much greater talent than required for normal case writing. you may be able to develop more controversial aspects. as topics which are not volunteered may be the best parts of a case. issues. Who made the decisions? 3. and ask for expansion when more detail is needed. Once the interviewee starts to talk freely. The way should be left open to request further information. Use of a tape recorder is recommended. if the interviewee is a relative stranger. It will help keep facts straight. these should be retained for possible use. conversation should be steered to case specifics.

are usually objective information. There will be information gaps which must be filled. and conflicts all highlighted. A case writer's opinions can not be completely avoided. but effort must be made to give a well rounded presentation. drama.. In general. The first stage is a rough draft to sort out information.civeng. selection of what to include is a form of editorializing. Most cases go through at least three stages of writing. one structure may dominate but it can not stand alone. and present-tense cases about out-dated technology have little value in the classroom. but it is still opinion and should be recognized and regarded as such. photographs. You should try to tell the whole story in the first draft. readers assume given information is factual unless specific steps are taken to clarify. even better. A case writer must subordinate his ideas to presenting facts and the opinions of principals in the case. i. Most engineering writers are accustomed to presenting their own ideas and opinions in a compact logical sequence. events occur in a time sequence which influences outcome. given as an exhibit of original copy used by the engineer. At this point. The third stage is editing to get a "tight" final draft. The second stage is rewriting to achieve an Engineering Case with issues. it is advisable to set http://www. Technology dates rapidly. You should not be concerned with separation into parts nor with teaching objectives.. There is a narrative structure which ties events together. If displayed in its original form. you would have some idea of how the case will be used in class.e. Almost anything else will be opinion. An early draft clarifies your thinking and lets you identify any missing data. Data should be tabulated where possible or.carleton. It may be correct.WRITING ENGINEERING CASES Page 6 of 7 Getting the Words on Paper. it should be attributed to an individual in the case. writing in the first person is excellent. although you should not be overly concerned with teaching objectives. and suspense. If information is to be questioned by a student. Once data are gathered. Test results. For most other situations. If the case is your personal experience. An easy way to start preparation of the first draft is to listen to the tape recording. The important point is to get a story on paper in some form. however. either by a second interview or library research. letters.ca/ECL/cwrtng. memos. Experience has shown that good cases can be used for many purposes other than the one intended by the writer. specific facts and details are given so the student can deal with issues and problems. jotting down key ideas as they occur on the tape. put it in a separate section at the end of the case or. If written in the present tense. It is only important to visualize that the case can be used for at least one purpose. First person can also be used if you have an outstanding interview which needs little changing or rearrangement. There is an expository structure. in the instructor's note where it might provide guidance for what students should discover in the case. it is easier to write in the third person. problems. however. A well-written case has several structures. This is antithetical to case writing where emphasis is in recounting circumstances that encourage a student to sharpen his thinking. There is a plot structure that adds interest. In a good case. It is important to differentiate between fact and opinion. there is a sense of immediacy. There is a time structure. preferably. is highly desirable as it conveys a sense of reality. it is advisable to get a first draft written rapidly while your impressions are still fresh. etc. the student can see the context in which the data were actually received. Before proceeding. Use of original copy. catalog data. These may be out of chronological order but all the ideas will be there.html 1/27/2009 . If you must present your own viewpoint. etc.

brother. revise as needed.WRITING ENGINEERING CASES Page 7 of 7 the work aside for some period. Chandler. beware of the tendency to extract the humanity and leave the technology. As written With minor changes With major changes With names of people and companies disguised. The final draft should be sent to the source for approval. It should sound like an interesting story. H. you probably have a good case.e. Remember. be highly critical of your writing. objectives. you'll like it! References 1. Do not ask for simple acceptance or rejection (You don't want to lose all that effort!). Case writing is fun. Ohio. or tighten it.. even somewhat opposed. Once you have it on paper. Assume the reader's role when editing. secretary. Because you withheld your opinion in the case. Try the writer's acronym: KISS (keep it simple. The American Society for Metals. Once you think you have a final draft. 1978 http://www. A dormant period increases objectivity and allows a fresh viewpoint. i. "The How To Write What Book. 1. An instructor's note can be very valuable for the instructor who uses your case. Try it. there are plenty of people who will gladly comment on it. When editing a case to shorten. Still want to write engineering cases? The most important point is to find an engineering situation which intrigues you enough to want to write about it.ca/ECL/cwrtng.spouse. E. Rescript. But. "Squeeze" the writing to eliminate excess words. A useful check is to have someone with no technical background -.. 2. stupid). not a technical paper. suggest scaled approval. If they find it interesting. etc. Well. -. sister. The process should be made as simple as possible: a letter to sign and return is the simplest. 3. there it is. Preparation of a case requires commitment which makes it difficult to view the case objectively or discard any part of it." Metals Park. etc.carleton. 4. In editing. Chandler (l) gives many useful suggestions for writing and editing. While the final draft is off for approval. you can use an instructor's note to present your views on the important issues in the case or a preferred method of solution. it may be useful to read it aloud to check the narrative structure. prepare an instructor's note.read it. Comments on use of the case and questions that can be asked are also appropriate.html 1/27/2009 .civeng. if you plan to include one. writer and editor are two different persons with two different.

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