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VitalSkillsinEngineering:

Communication

byChristineNicometo,KevinJ.B.Anderson,Sandy
Courter,ThomasMcGlamery,andTraciNathansKelly

ThroughthecourseofafouryearNSFproject,we
interviewedover140engineersandconductedcase
studiesofsixengineeringfirmsfromvarying
industries.Over2000engineersorengineering
graduatesalsorespondedtosurveys.Allofthisdata
enabledustodrawconclusionsaboutthewaysof
thinking,skills,valuesandidentitiesofpracticing
engineers.Thisreportoncommunicationisoneofa
seriesofbriefreportsonideasforfurtherenhancing
theconnectionbetweenengineeringcoursesand
engineeringpractice.
Thisfrontpagedetailsdatafromengineering
graduatesontheimportanceofcommunicationand
whatitmeanstothem.Thebackprovidespractical
suggestionsforincorporatingtheseideasincourses.

Engineeringcommunicationis
anessentialskill
Strongcommunicationskillsareapartofpractically
everyinteractioninengineeringwork.Itisnowonder
communicationconsistentlyranksamongthetop
threeskillsessentialtotheprofession.Oursurveys
showedthatcommunicationskillswererankedasan
essentialskillby62%ofengineers,morethanany
otherskill,andthatfully90%listeditasessentialor
importantonthejob.
Engineering is the easy part. Its the people that
are difficult. ~Practicing Mechanical Engineer

Engineeringcommunicationis
lackinginengineeringeducation
Thoughitwasasurprisewhenengineersconsistently
rankedcommunicationasoneofthetopthreeareas
wheretheirengineeringeducationwaslacking,the
dataiscompelling.Whenaskedtolistwhere
undergraduateengineeringeducationneeded
improvement,participantsrankedcommunication
skillsaheadofhavingmoreinternshipsandhandson
projects.Engineeringstudentsarelearningthe
technicalskillstheyneedintheclassroom,butthey
needmorecommunicationtraining;oneengineerput
itthisway:
But in here on any given day, for example, I probably
dont spend more than two or three hours on looking at
technical stuff. A lot of my time gets spent on interacting
with people in marketing, sales, field support, and even
other engineers in different disciplines. Im an electrical
engineer, but, you know, I have to work with mechanical
and other engineers that are here to understand the big
picture. And then, a lot of writing, documentation, and a
lot of presentations. -- Practicing Electrical Engineer

Communicationmustbemade
explicitinengineeringpedagogy
Thecultureofengineeringeducationmustshiftto
includeessentialcommunicationskillsaspartofthe
toolboxforsuccessfulengineering.Tobuild
communicationskillsandconfidenceinstudents,
educatorsmustexplicitlylabelthemomentswhen,
where,andhowcommunicationinfluencesthe
successofthetechnicalsolution.Mentoringstudents
inthetechnicalaspectsnolongerprovidesacomplete
education.Introducecommunicationexercisesinto
existingcontentofengineeringcoursesbycreating
authenticcommunicationcyclessurroundingtechnical
work.Wheneverpossible,thatcycleshouldcontain
written,oral,andvisualcommunicationsthatmirror
expectationsandbestpracticesfoundinengineering
workplaces.

Integrateengineering
communication
Bymakingthedevelopmentofcommunicationskillsa
regularpartofeveryclassscurriculum,engineering
facultywillpreparetheirstudentstosucceed.
Changeupassignmentstothoroughlyintegrate
communicationskillsintoengineeringproblemsolving
tasks.Explicitlylabeltheaudience,purpose,and
careernecessityinassignmentssothatstudentssee
connectionswithcommunicationstheywillcreateand
contributetointheirlatercareers.
Effectivecommunicationskillsarenotbuiltduringa
singleclassorexercise,butthroughcontinualpractice.
Asmoreengineeringinstructorsintegrate
communicationsexpectationsintotheircurriculum,
theypreparestudentsforonsiteworkandmake
thembettercommunicatorsnow.

Useestablishedrubricsfor
assessment&feedback
Whilemanyengineeringfacultyunderstandtheneed
forintegrationofcommunicationpracticeintothe
curriculum,theyareuncertainabouthowtoassess
thematerialthatstudentsproduce.Craftingan
assessmentrubric(whetherwrittenororal)canbean
easyandinvaluablewaytoprovidethefeedbackthat
studentscrave.Themaincomponentsofany
communicationrubricconsistofevaluationsofhow
wellthecommunicationaddressedaudienceneeds
andachieveditspurpose.Instructorsmayalsochoose
tocommentonissuessuchasformat,languageuse,or
style.Seeadescriptionofrubricsandsomeexamples
here.

LinktoProjectSite
Ifyourelookingatthisreportonpaper,ourproject
websiteishplengr.engr.wisc.edu/resources.htm

LinkstoResources
Rubrics:Example1Example2Example3
BetterPowerPointpresentations(MichaelAlley)

CommunicationAssignments
1.Recastassignmentstomimicrealworldneeds.
Givestudentspracticewritingtoexternal
audienceswithhighexpectations.Insteadof
askingstudentstodocumenttheirworksimplyfor
theinstructor,reframetheaudienceasan
interestedclientorgovernmentagency.
Developingarubrictomirrorthoseaudience
expectationsrequirestheinstructororstudents
toresearchthemandunderstandhowthework
willtrulybejudged.Hereisatemplateforamajor
technicalreportincludingexpectationsoncontent
andformatthatallowforquickanduniform
assessmentandfeedbackonstudentwork.
2.Requireformality.Askstudentstopractice
professionalcommunicationinallactivitiesofthe
class.Puttingaprofessionaltouchonsimple
communications,suchasemail,dailyelevator
reports,orteamrequests,canhelpstudents
developattentiontoaudienceneedsatadifferent
levelthanmoretraditionalacademicformatsof
selfreportingoftencallfor.Createarubricfor
rapidassessmentoftheserecurringpractices.
3.Assignapresentation.Practicingengineers
constantlypresentinmeetings,designreviews,
clientinteractions,andothervenues.Tobetter
preparefutureengineersforsuchdemanding
formats,includepresentationsaspartofthe
courseandsupportstudentsindoingthemwell.
Forsingleauthors,allowfor510minutetalks;
teamtalksarebestassessedin1520minutes.For
lessformalpresentations,elevatortalks(<two
minutes)provideabrief,highleveldescriptionof
workforanexecutiveaudience.Feedbackfrom
theirpeersandtheirinstructorprovidesstudents
withgoalsforimprovement(rubricscanalsobe
usedbypeers).
4.Assessefficiently.Instructorsoftenfear
assessingwrittenworkbecauseofthetime
commitmenttraditionallyrequired.However,
rubricsandselectiveassessmentoferrorpatterns
canreducefeedbacktimedramatically.Selective
assessmentinvolvesreadingapiece,listingthe
errors/issuesinorderofsignificance,then
demonstratinganexampleoftheerrorand
potentialsolutionwithafocusononlyone(or
few)keylearningoutcomes.