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Improving Students’ Professional Communication Skills By Employing an Integrated System of Learning Tools and Methods: 1140134

Principal Investigator: Suguru Ishizaki
CoPrincipal Investigator(s): David Dzombak, Stacie Rohrbach, Necia Werner
Organization: Carnegie-Mellon University

This project focuses on creating and deploying an integrated system of components to facilitate the learning of communication skills within engineering courses. The design of the components is guided by the need to provide every student in an engineering program the opportunity to learn technical and professional communication skills while requiring minimal changes in existing curricula and instructional resource allocations. The project’s working hypothesis is that this approach – combined with thorough evaluation efforts that measure the effectiveness of the learning system, and the dissemination of project efforts online and in workshops – will lead to the development of a research-informed instructional framework and ultimately lead to a significant improvement in the communications skills of engineering students.

Communication skills are critical to engineers’ professional success. Nevertheless many engineering programs are faced with various challenges that cause them to struggle to prepare their students to meet the communication expectations of the workplace. One challange is that communication courses are typically taught to small cohorts, providing a small number of students with the individualized instruction that they need. This approach is also problematic because it requires the employment of numerous instructors to address the communication needs of whole engineering programs. The number of engineering courses that students are required to take presents another challenge to programs. It leaves little curricular space to add the multiple communication courses that students need to gain the skills that are critical to their professional success, which range from writing in different genres to oral presentations and visual communication. One approach is to embed communication pedagogy and writing instructors in existing engineering courses. But, this is a costly approach to maintain and does not provide instructors the time they need to teach component skills. Thus, the challenge of finding more efficient ways to teach engineering students the full range of effective communication skills that they need to achieve professional success still exists.

This project explores the challenge by developing and evaluating a system of distributed communication learning components that are designed by the Carnegie Mellon engineering community and a writing instructor in engineering courses. The system integrates human instruction with online tutorials and references as supplemental learning components. The instruction evolves from initial reliance on writing tasks where interaction between instructors and students is important, to a gradual reduction of contact between instructors and students. In the early (novice) stages, students work with a writing instructor who guides them through the acquisition, practice, and application of component skills using online tutorials and references, which is the focus of the first phase of this project. As students become mature communicators, they increasingly participate in peer-review activities where they become engaged in giving and receiving critiques with their peers – a common practice in the workplace, which would be the focus of this project in future phases.