By Robert Gardner
A COMMUNICATIONS SKILLS CENTER
AT THE UNIVERSITY OF UTAH IS PRIMING ENGINEERING UNDERGRADUATES
TO BECOME LEADERS IN THE WORKPLACE.
Most engineering schools have programs in place to help students
improve their communications skills. Unfortunately, many of
these programs require additional classes in an already packed
curriculum and do not engage students until their senior year,
when they are on the verge of graduation. The Center for Engineering
Leadership at the University of Utah is unique in that it
engages students in their freshman year. "We work with
engineering faculty," Director April Kedrowicz says,
"in students' core classes—[of which there
is] one required course at every level, freshman through senior—and
develop their writing, speaking, and team skills."
The "we" is a staff of twelve humanities graduate
student "consultants" who help students with oral
presentation, writing skills, and the dynamics of working
as a team. "They do a lot of behind the scenes work,"
Kedrowicz says. This behind-the-scenes work includes meeting
with teaching assistants and faculty members to better integrate
communication skills instruction into the curriculum. They
also lecture in the engineering classes on "presentation
techniques, persuasion, and the dynamics of teamwork."
The center prepares students with communications and teamwork
skills needed to lead, but also makes them aware of ethical
issues. This is especially important in engineering, a field
with the potential to seriously impact public safety. The
center offers a general education elective in applied ethics
that is taught by a philosophy professor and features professional
engineers from companies such as Dupont, Bard Access, and
QuartzDyne as guest lecturers. Although the course is not
required, "students are strongly encouraged to take
it by their advisers," Kedrowicz says.
The program's origins date back seven years to when
mechanical engineering professor Robert Roemer approached
Ann Darling and Maureen Mathison of Utah's department
of communication. Roemer was looking for help for his engineering
students, who were having difficulty presenting professional
documents and making presentations. Kedrowicz, as a communications
Ph.D. candidate, worked helping engineering students in the
system this triumvirate set up. Last year, the Center for
Engineering leadership was set up with a $1.1 million, five-year
grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, established
in honor of Hewlett Packard Company co-founder William Hewlett
and his wife.
The center currently works with five of the seven engineering
departments at Utah: mechanical, chemical, civil engineering,
bioengineering, and electrical and computer. Kedrowicz says
student reaction to the program has generally been positive,
though she admits freshman and sophomores tend not to see
the relevance of communication skills as they study electrical
circuits, trusses, or organic molecules. "But by their
junior year," Kedrowicz says, "they have begun
to see why these skills are important."
Robert Gardner is Associate Editor of Prism Magazine.