Technical communication is an essential engineering skill that often does not receive adequate attention in the technical curriculum. Although embedding course components that require communication into technical courses may provide the impression that students are receiving sufficient instruction and practice in the area, the primary mode of evaluation in technical courses typically remains focused on technical content, not the delivery of that content. Furthermore, it is difficult to provide the feedback-revision cycles that are imperative to improving communication skills when also trying to cover a large degree of important technical content. Recognizing the need among our students for a designated course in technical communication, we in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at The Ohio State have designed a new course on the topic.
Technical and Professional Communication for Chemical Engineers has now been offered twice in consecutive years and satisfies a technical elective requirement for students. The course covers four major types of communication: written (verbal), oral (verbal), body language (non-verbal), and visual (non-verbal). Emphasis is not on teaching students one “right” method of communication, but rather providing an environment in which they can develop an understanding of effective communication and the ability to recognize and evaluate the criteria for quality artifacts in different scenarios, as well as an opportunity to practice communication. Significance and audience analysis are two themes woven throughout the course, and covered in a variety of contexts, including, but not limited to, business and professional communication, research communication, argument development, and summarizing technical content. Recognizing that students enter the course with strong preexisting schemata for communication, inductive teaching and experiential learning methods are employed. Most class periods begin with activities that extract students existing schemata, a discussion of these schemata and development of a new and improved schemata, and then an opportunity to put to practice what was discussed through active learning exercises. Lectures, which are by no means dominated by the instructor, also incorporate active practice of communication techniques through such exercises as impromptu speeches and feedback, as well as short writing exercises. The instructor meets with each student individually at least once during the term to discuss their writing and presentations. During these meetings, the student and instructor work together to establish goals to improve their communication (e.g., increased eye contact in oral presentations, using parallel structure in writing, etc.).
The course incorporates a wide breadth of communication topics, while providing depth in audience analysis, significance, argument development, and best practices for delivery in oral presentations. Student feedback strongly indicates that this is a value-added course, but it is also important to recognize that some of the gains may not be consciously recognized by the students at this stage in their careers. It is essential that we support our students in developing not only as technical engineers, but also as professionals, and technical and professional communication is a cornerstone of that.
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