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Communications as part of the core engineering curriculum.

It is widely accepted that engineering students must develop good communication skills in addition to acquiring technical knowledge and competence. However, most engineering courses, properly, emphasize fundamentals of science and technology, and most engineering curricula have little room for flexibility. How then do we teach communication skills, an essential component of the total skills package needed by a graduating engineer? In this paper we give one approach to answering this question, namely, by making communications part of the core curriculum in engineering education. We discuss mechanisms to establish a solid foundation in communication skills and to instill a motivation to develop these skills.

Communication Skills

Before discussing how communications can be taught, we will attempt to answer the fundamental question'What are communication skills?' Most people will readily agree a good communicator is someone proficient in writing reports and in giving oral presentations. These skills are traditionally stressed in undergraduate engineering curricula by requiring written lab reports and oral presentations in thesis and design project courses. The ability to perform in these areas is important, but effective communication involves much more

Young' has identified nine criteria for evaluation of communication skills development for students enrolled in a cooperative education programme. These items are shown in Table 1, and have taken on added significance for the TUNS Chemical Engineering Department since we adopted the cooperative education approach in May, 1988. Our programme consists of three four-month work-terms interspersed with five four-month academic terms (students take two years of general engineering at one of several associated universities before coming to TUNS). Our efforts in teaching communication skills are aimed at addressing all of Young's evaluation criteria, with the exception of item nine (second language skills).

We have concluded that if students are to improve their communication skills, it must be done by making communications a part of the core curriculum. This can only be done by treating the subject as we do the engineering sciences, introducing a series of principles through a hierarchy of difficulty or complexity, and with continuing opportunity for practice with positive feedback and reinforcement. There are at least two avenues to accomplish these goals: delivery of a separate course or courses in communications; and integration of communications throughout the curriculum. A First Course in Communications

To establish a base in communications skills, we use a course devoted to the subject and taken in the first academic term at TUNS. Three contact hours are typically assigned to the course in place since 1984. It is considered a core course and is taught by a faculty member in the department. Details have been given by MacKay(2) and by Amyotte.(3) Briefly, the course is primarily concerned with improving the writing and public speaking skills of the students (items five and six in Table 1).

While covering writing skills, emphasis is placed on organization of material. We stress the pyramid technique as described by Blicq(4) (the course text) and shown in Figure 1. In this approach, the summary statement, conveying the main message, is placed up front and the supporting details come afterward. This forces the writer to make a conscious decision before starting to write: ie., he or she must decide just what the reader most wants to know or needs to be told. The net result is little time is wasted for both the writer and the reader. We apply the pyramid technique to writing business letters, memoranda and short reports (incident, trip, inspection and progress). Because most students are used to writing climactically (placing the main message last rather than first), considerable practice is needed to effect a change in their writing habits.

In dealing with public speaking skills (with and without visual aids), various exercises have been used over the years (not necessarily all in the same year): speaking from prepared text, short (one-minute) talks of introduction, longer (two-minute) talks on a favourite sport or leisure activity, and long (10-minute) technical presentations using an overhead projector (thus helping to address item seven in Table 1). In these sessions we are specifically concerned with eye contact, use of gestures and auditory indicators (volume, inflection, pace). All students, not just the speakers, are actively involved through their roles as chairpersons, timekeepers, evaluators, recorders and gruntcounters'. Audiotape or videotape records of student efforts are also used to provide positive feedback and to reinforce the learning process.

Additional topics included in the communications course are effective instruction (item four in Table 1) and job-search skills. The effective instruction discussion trys to create an awareness that all people do not process information and learn in the same manner. Different teaching (ie. communication) methods may be needed for different people or situations. For example, reading a piece of descriptive text may do the job for some, while others may need to hear the words spoken or see a picture that complements the text. The paper by Felder and Silverman(5) on learning and teaching styles is an excellent reference on this subject.

The portion of the course dealing with job-search skills is a direct outgrowth of the co-op nature of the chemical engineering programme at TUNS. Topics covered include application forms, covering letters, resumes and interviews. The university co-op coordinators play a key role in addressing these items; much of this work is done in the form of seminars held outside normal class time.

A Second Course in Communications

The department recently adopted a two-course sequence in communications. The first course, as described previously, is taken in the first of five academic terms at TUNS. The second course is assigned a load of one contact hour per week for each of the last four academic terms in the programme. Students are involved in a communications course (either the one-term basic course or the four-term course) during their entire period of students at TUNS.

Because we are offering this second course for the first time, much of the following discussion is conceptual. The intent is to create a programme designed to improve individual communication skills. Initial emphasis is on technical writing, drawing material for assignments from other curriculum courses. The work-term report required in the coop programme can be a vehicle for the student to improve writing skills through a revision process in the subsequent academic term. Similarly, laboratory and term reports, rather than being forgotten after the panic effort to make the due date, can be used to practice a technique to develop a knowledge of good writing characteristics. We intend to use software programs developed specifically for analysis of written text (hopefully Writer's Workbench, as described by MacKay et al.(6))). Occasional lectures, seminars and workshops will be used to review knowledge and to introduce new material. Again, this is a new course; comments on possible content from readers would be welcome and appreciated.

Integration of Communication Skills

Drawing material from other courses into the second communications course is one way of integrating communication skills into the curriculum. We also try to develop and integrate the skills by incorporating report writing and oral presentations in technical courses. Rather than simply writing more reports and giving more talks, the emphasis is on varying the assignment, such as mid-term progress reports (oral) and end-of-term final reports (oral and written) in the undergraduate thesis course. Technical course assignments which call for a solution reported in the form of a one-page memorandum, have also been used.

Within the bounds of individual teaching styles, an attempt is made to foster the less tangible skills such as effective listening, thinking on one's feet, and expressing an opinion (items one-three in Table 1). This is done in some of our technical courses by verbal quizzing, asking for opinions on problem solutions, and having students solve tutorial problems alone and in groups for the rest of the class. Development of interpersonal skills is stressed in our process and plant design course by regular student-professor meetings and rotation of leadership in design groups. Item eight in Table 1, computer literacy, is partially covered by discussions on word-processing packages and electronic mail in the first communications course. Further treatment of the role and use of computers is accomplished by their utilization as tools for calculation, analysis, decision-making and communication throughout the entire curriculum. A pertinent example is the first assignment in the computer-aided design course-preparation of a resume using Latex, a mainframe word-processing package preferred by the course instructor.

A Graduate Course in Communications')

Why the question mark? There are two reasons: to solicit opinions, and to indicate the topic is indeed posing a question to our department. We currently run a non-credit, mandatory graduate-seminar course. Students are required to give at least two seminars, usually on their research project, during the course of their programme. While some graduate students are able to deliver first-rate presentations, it is obvious, sometimes painfully, that others could benefit from formal training in oral presentation skills. The same can be said of technical writing skills at the graduate level.

There are two basic sides to the issue. By the time a student begins graduate studies, he or she should be expected to have acquired adequate communication skills. To an extent, we agree. But what if a graduate student simply cannot communicate his or her research findings? What then? Do we let the student muddle through or do we attempt to rectify the situation-to at least present the student with the tools to effect improvement? Possible avenues we have considered for presenting these tools include a seminar course for credit, a graduate course devoted solely to the subject of communications, special one-time seminars on communication skills, a graduate course that combines elements of technical writing and public speaking, with topics such as instrumentation and experimental design. The list goes on at some length. We would be interested to hear the thoughts and experiences of others.

To Conclude

In this paper, we have presented our views on establishing and developing the communication abilities of engineering students. Clearly, we do not believe that communications should be viewed as a soft' subject best left to our departments. On the contrary, our approach has been to raise the profile of communications in our programme according it status as a core engineering subject.


1. P.V. Young, A Manual of Educational Objectives for the Cooperative Education Programme and Component Criteria for the Work Term Performance Evaluation Programme at MUN", Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Nfld., 2-3 (1987).

2. G.D.M. MacKay, An Approach to Teaching Technical Communication', Fifth Canadian Conference on Engineering Education, London, Ont. (May, 1986).

3. P.R. Amyotte, Development of Communication Skills', Engineering Education (in press).

4. R.S. Blicq, Technically - Write!, Prentice-Hall, Scarborough, Ont. (1987).

5. R.M. Felder and L.K. Silverman, Engineering Education, 78 (7), 674-681 (1988).

6. G.D.M. MacKay, P.R. Amyotte, and M.J. Pegg,'Writer's Workbench: Technical Writing as a Core Engineering Subject', Proceedings of Seventh Canadian Conference on Engineering Education, Toronto, 569-572 (June 1990).
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Title Annotation:engineering education
Author:MacKay, G. David M.; Amyotte, Paul R.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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