By Penny Hirsch and Barbara Swom

Photographs by John Anderson
A Northwestern student [right] presents her team's design for a prosthetic device to a client who has lost the use of her hand.
When first-year Northwestern University students Eric Yang, Anita Patel, Liao Chang, and Antonella Lostumbo asked for a critique of their design project--a new feeding device to help a young boy with familial disautonomia--they were in for a surprise. It was a communications professor who suggested that they try a collapsible container to avoid having to design an air vent for the device, and an engineering professor who advised them how to write about their solution--using tables and bullet points rather than an essay style. Although the students may have thought they had stumbled onto a Mad Hatter's tea party where everything is done in reverse, they were actually experiencing Engineering Criteria 2000 in action. The new accreditation guidelines from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology call for collaborative teaching to help students develop the communication skills and social awareness now considered essential in engineering practice.

What is happening at Northwestern is a good example of how well the collaborative effort between two very different departments can work. Within that framework, a team of engineering students were able to create a product that is improving the life of an eight-year-old boy and see for themselves how design and communication complement each other in professional practice. As Liao, 19, a biomedical engineering major from Taiwan, noted by the end of the course, "I learned to think and work like a professional engineer."

Eric, Anita, Liao, and Antonella aren't the only engineering students developing their communications skills in innovative collaborations. Far from it. Engineering schools across the nation are forging new connections with English, speech, and philosophy departments that allow students to study communication, teamwork, and ethics. But rather than sending students across campus, engineering schools have begun inviting humanities educators to help reshape the teaching of these skills in an engineering context with real clients and real projects.

The Engineering Design and Communication (EDC) program at Northwestern is one of the nation's most ambitious interdepartmental collaborations, involving more than 25 educators from the engineering school and the writing program in the arts and sciences college. EDC began as a pilot project in 1996 when Ed Colgate, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who was helping redesign the freshman curriculum, was looking for a way to include design instruction in an already crowded schedule.

Colgate proposed combining a design course with the freshman writing requirement. "Working with grad students over the years, I discovered that critical thinking and designs improved when students were forced to defend their ideas in writing," he says. The writing program had previously worked with the engineering school to integrate writing into the curriculum. But EDC offered the opportunity to develop a truly interdisciplinary writing course in which design and communications would receive equal emphasis.

In the past four years, EDC has grown to become a two-quarter course consisting of 22 sections, taught by professors from both engineering and arts and sciences. A core group of teachers work together to set goals, plan lectures, recruit project sponsors, design lab activities, and manage assessment. Though staffing such faculty-intensive courses could pose difficulties, EDC has developed a core of educators from both sides who keep coming back--and new ones join the team each year. Biomedical engineering associate professor Dave Kelso says the collaboration adds to the pleasure of teaching the course. "It is really exciting to see how much richer a design course can be when so many people with so many different perspectives are working together and generating new ideas."

And he should know. He's been doing it for five years.

To learn more about the Engineering Communication Consortium, which supports collaborative programs like Northwestern's, contact Linda Driskill, driskila@ruf.rice.edu .

Penny Hirsch and Barbara Shwom are on the faculty of the writing program at Northwestern.

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