Teaching engineers to communicate

English for Engineers, Football French, Rocks for Jocks: specialized courses I remember from university. Depending on your faculty, you needed to take something like this to ensure you were graduating an academically well-rounded student.

As an Arts student, I felt the science requirement was a waste of time. Did taking six credits of Oceanography really mean I graduated a better potential employee? The flip side of this is the Arts & Humanities requirement for students coming from faculties like Engineering, Science and Applied Science.

These are people whose education revolves around learning specific, technical competencies in the classroom which they then put into practice in real life when they develop new drugs, build bridges, design vehicles, etc. In their case, building humanities-related competencies into their educational requirements makes a lot more sense. If you can’t communicate complex technical information to educate and influence others, are you really going to be able to build that bridge?

In a recent Globe & Mail article, Who needs the humanities? Engineers, engineering graduate, Michael Ross, makes the case for teaching engineers to communicate. He pleads for universities to get rid of specialized Humanities-for-engineers courses like English for Engineers in order to let engineers “learn what it’s like to read three essays and discuss them in 2,000 words every week. Show [them] how to debate philosophy or political theories. Teach [them] to paint pictures, or play music, or write a play.”

What Ross said next had me doing the happy dance and adding a new PowerPoint slide to my presentation-training-for-techies deck:

… that these [Arts & Humanities courses] may seem irrelevant to an engineering education is precisely why they must be offered in the curriculum. Being good at calculus and physics isn’t any good unless we can communicate with others.

Can I get a witness? More of my thoughts on that point here.

Reading, analyzing and discussing literature, history or art helps us understand and appreciate the power of words and pictures in the context of a narrative, and can illustrate how the right combination can help people see things more clearly, invoke an emotion and build understanding of an idea or concept.

The Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board is in the process of adapting teaching guidelines so that future engineering graduates will need to demonstrate their development in 12 specific attributes before they graduate. According to Ross, while six can be learned in the classroom and are easy to measure, the other six are more intangible, and include Communication.

“Let the facts speak for themselves!” is an irrelevant and irresponsible statement for any technical professional to make nowadays. Today, we live in a world where people have access to so much information, and misinformation. If we don’t tell our own stories, in ways people can understand, someone may tell them for us and that doesn’t always turn out so well.

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