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WOW the Audience - Many engineering students lack the communications skills they will need to succeed professionally. Here’s how educators are working to fix that. + By Thomas K. Grose

Lisa D. Bullard, director of undergraduate studies in the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State University (NCSU), spent nine years working for Eastman Chemical Co. So she knows what it takes to succeed as an engineer. That’s why Bullard likes to ask students in her Professional Development class how much time they think they’ll spend on the technical aspects of their jobs versus on documentation and communications. Invariably, they guess 75 percent of their duties will involve all things technical. “And I have to tell them, no, it’s the opposite,” says Bullard.

The workplace reality check tends to stun aspiring engineers, many of whom gravitated to engineering as a way to focus entirely on science, math, and technology while dodging dreaded English and speech classes. “Most students would rather spend their time doing calculations,” says Audra Morse, associate dean for undergraduate studies at Texas Tech University, “and we have to tell them that those calculations aren’t of much use if they can’t explain them to their boss.” Beyond explaining the numbers, engineers are expected to make formal oral presentations, run meetings, and quickly pitch ideas to teammates or clients. Civil and environmental engineers in particular may have to regularly address the public and field questions at hearings or community meetings. And all engineers will need to talk their way through job interviews over the course of their career. Indeed, communication skills are considered so crucial that ABET requires engineering schools to ensure their graduates have picked some up along the way.

The accrediting body lets schools decide how to meet that requirement, however. Many still opt to farm out the chore to English and media departments, where classes often emphasize writing rather than speaking. But a number of engineering schools across the country—including NCSU, Texas Tech, and Vanderbilt—have started to address that imbalance. Some have developed communications classes geared strictly for engineering students that place a stronger, often equal, focus on public-speaking skills. Others, like Bucknell University, integrate communications lessons into engineering courses. At Texas Tech, Dean Fontenot teaches Professional Communications for Engineers, a course she developed a decade ago. It’s service learning based—students work on actual, budgeted projects for local community groups and government agencies, ranging from animal shelters to NASA—and requires students to give six oral presentations. Vanderbilt’s Technical Communications course was designed by Julie E. Sharp, an associate professor of the practice of technical communications, and it includes three major oral presentations. Meanwhile, Daniel Cavanagh and Joseph Tranquillo, both associate professors of biomedical engineering at Bucknell, have developed a series of oral and written exercises or assignments that have been incorporated into nearly all of the dozen engineering courses required by their department.


“Delivery Is Another Story”

How badly do engineering students need help honing their oral communications skills? The need varies from school to school. Bullard’s professional development course, which she coteaches with chemical engineering professor David Ollis, focuses on written lessons for half the semester, with the remaining time divided equally between oral skills and professional development. That’s because while most of her students are decent at public speaking, “their writing skills often leave something to be desired.” Over the past 14 years, Bucknell’s Cavanagh has noticed more first-year students arriving on campus with stronger presentation skills, probably because they get practice in high school. Still, he finds that all students need help improving their delivery. Vanderbilt’s Sharp agrees. Most students can come up with content and organize it, she says, “but delivery is another story.”

Among the most common weaknesses instructors see is looking down at the floor instead of the audience. “You have to be credible, and the only way to do that is with eye contact,” Fontenot tells her students. Along with staring at their feet, students make the mistake of reading from sheets of paper, notecards, laptops, or slides. Since engineers must learn to talk extemporaneously—which requires knowing their material backward and forward—Vanderbilt’s Sharp urges students to think of PowerPoint slides as the backdrop of a speech. “The focus is on you,” she tells them. Fontenot reminds her students that public speakers must be ready to give a talk even if their PowerPoint presentation conks out. Voice projection is another skill students must work on, she adds, because many initially have a bad case of the mumbles.

Understanding the audience and preparing remarks accordingly is another important communications tool. It’s fine to use jargon, abbreviations, and mind-numbing numbers with other engineers, cautions Fontenot, but bosses, clients, and colleagues typically aren’t engineers, and thus don’t grasp “engineeringese.” When Fontenot’s students designed components for a mock Orion space capsule for NASA last year, the working engineers they spoke with no doubt understood their jargon. But engineers must also be prepared to deal with clients who, for example, run animal shelters or arts centers. Many of Cavanagh’s bioengineering students must work with physicians. Although doctors may be comfortable with math and science, he advises his students, they are not engineers and thus it’s best to use clear, nontechnical English when speaking to them.


illustration“Elevator Pitch”

It is also important, instructors say, to keep the lessons as realistic as possible. That’s why Fontenot designed her class to incorporate service-learning projects that require students not only to interact with nonengineers but also to stick to, and make presentations about, budgets on deadline. Such projects also enliven the class for budding engineers, who typically enjoy hands-on activities. To inject a bit of real life into his assignments, Bucknell’s Cavanagh tries to impose “realistic limitations” on students, including varying the length of time they have, the number of PowerPoint slides they can use, or the locale. For his senior design class last spring, Cavanagh recruited a dozen top administrators and had each student literally give an “elevator pitch” to one of these “executives” about the device they were designing during a one-minute, 50-second elevator ride. Because students didn’t know when their turn would come, there was an added element of surprise. One clever undergraduate, in anticipation of the pitch, loaded images of his device into his smartphone. Cavanagh admits the exercise was a bit “corny,” but notes, “The students received good feedback, and they really enjoyed the experience.” To add verisimilitude to her class, Sharp recruited a cadre of Vanderbilt engineering alumni to conduct mock interviews. “It’s great practice,” she says, “and it also lets students start to build up a [career] network.”

Not surprisingly, one thing many students must conquer is knee-knocking terror. “Studies have shown people fear death less than they fear public speaking,” Sharp says. To help ease those anxieties, she treats her class as one big, supportive family. Ahead of the first oral presentation, for example, students can practice in groups, where they tend to give helpful suggestions. In-class critiques always accentuate the positive, and everyone gets a round of applause. “No one is put on the spot in front of the class,” says Sharp, who later gives students more candid and critical appraisals, one-on-one. Bucknell takes a tough-love approach, with some student presentations videotaped, played back in class, and critiqued. “The students don’t like it,” Cavanagh admits, “but they can see how the critiques are justified if they’re fiddling with their keys or holding a large sheet of paper, because it’s distracting.”

Assessing how well a student “performs” an oral presentation can require instructors to be subjective. Most tend to use scoring rubrics with easily identifiable points. At Bucknell, Cavanagh says, faculty members discuss and reach general agreement on what strengths they’re looking for, so there is little variance from class to class. Additionally, he says, students are measured using different baselines. Those who start with relatively polished speaking techniques are judged differently from students with initially shaky skills. “We’re looking for progress,” Cavanagh says, noting that all wind up on the same par.

Ultimately, instructors find that even their most reluctant or grudging public speakers come to understand the professional need for good oral presentation skills. “Engineers tend to be very pragmatic,” Sharp says. In fact, she adds, “I’ve been told by students that this was the most practical course they’ve had at Vanderbilt, and the most valuable.” Coming from engineers, that kind of praise speaks volumes.

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.

Illustrations by iStock/retrorocket


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