PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - MARCH 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 7
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The Write Time and Place

By Robert Gardner


To be successful, today's engineering undergraduates must not only master technical material but also be able to communicate with nonengineers. As the profession moves to improve engineers' communication skills in this brave new world, it may get help from an organization that dates back to the Jazz Age. The Engineering College Magazines Associated (ECMA) is an umbrella organization for 17 student-run magazines based at engineering colleges across the country.

Students working on college engineering magazines such as these learn a number of new skills.
Students working on college engineering magazines such as these learn a number of new skills.
Students working on college engineering magazines such as these learn a number of new skills.
ECMA is dedicated to the continued operation and quality of these student-run magazines. To that end, the organization holds an annual conference that offers workshops run by industry professionals on writing, advertising, and the skills needed to run a small organization. "One thing ECMA does well is give member publications the tools to make the students' experience worthwhile," says Paul Sorenson, head of ECMA and director of communications at the Institute of Technology at the University of Minnesota.

Part of what makes the experience worthwhile is making it count. More often than not, Sorenson says, students get academic credit for their work on an ECMA publication. Yet ECMA hopes to incorporate more of the work at its member publications into engineering school curricula. "We'd like to get these institutions to realize that these magazines can help make their students better communicators," Sorenson says. "We want to show them that we can be a kind of supplement to the curriculum."

Work at an ECMA publication can change the direction of a student's career. Sorenson has seen several young men and women change career paths as a result of working for the Minnesota Technolog, an ECMA magazine for which he is adviser. One engineering student he worked with went directly from being an editor of Minnesota Technolog to a job at Scientific American. She now works as a science writer.

Sorenson has found that recruiting students to write stories, do layout, and sell advertising has been challenging in an era when students' time is being taken up by increasing course loads and jobs. "We usually get students at one of two times," Sorenson says, "right away as freshman or toward the end of their school career." Once he's recruited the students, the challenge is to get them to switch from writing in an academic style to a journalistic one. The transition can be a difficult one, Sorenson admits, but one that can pay dividends. "Many people come back to me and say that what they learned working at the magazine helped them greatly in their careers."

ECMA was created in the 1920s to be a single interface for companies wanting to recruit engineering graduates through ads in the magazines published by engineering colleges. For many years after ECMA's founding, the advertising money was plentiful, and ECMA had dozens of member publications. With the advent of professional publications like Graduating Engineer in the 1980s, advertising money dried up, and the number of member publications dwindled. To survive ECMA has had to reinvent itself. "We're more of a professional society now," Sorenson says. A professional society that finds itself positioned to help train the engineers of the future.

Robert Gardner is a freelance writer based in Boston.


A CLICK AWAY - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
YOU CALL THIS SCHOOL? - By Pierre Home-Douglas
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REFRACTIONS: Keeping Things in Perspective - By Henry Petroski
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT - Engineers seeking advancement are getting degrees in engineering management. - By Alice Daniel
BOOK NOTES: Getting Smart
TEACHING: Making Them Want to Stay - By Phillip Wankat & Frank Oreovicz
ON CAMPUS: The Write Time and Place - By Robert Gardner
LAST WORD: Inside Washington - By Jim Turner

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