WOW the Audience

By Grose, Thomas K. | ASEE Prism, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

WOW the Audience


Grose, Thomas K., ASEE Prism


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 j ob 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 ODis, 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 Jn " it, she says, "but delivery is another story. …

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