Best way to develop communication skills? Experience!

In the nine years I have been working in higher education, I’ve seen firsthand the value of experience gained outside of the classroom in more fully understanding the concepts taught within the classroom.

Case in point: Technical communication. Many second and third-year students struggle to understand why they need to write and present well as engineers. Despite all the news stories in recent years about how employers value “soft skills” like communication and teaming, it can be tough for someone who thinks of engineering as a math-and-science field to see the value of learning how to compose clear, concise prose and design engaging presentation slides.

After all, lectures about persuading an audience and using precise, concise language can seem irrelevant in the midst of coursework focused on equations, computational analysis, and theory. They may believe, “I’m an engineer! My numbers (or models) will do the persuading!”

It is only after their first co-op or internship with a real company that many students finally connect what I try to teach them in their disciplinary courses with how their supervisors expect them to communicate. Students often come back from these experiences saying, “Now I get it!”  They talk about having to present to their engineering team on a regular basis, write test reports, or contribute to larger communication projects in which they have to convince others to take a particular course of action.

It’s often easy to identify those students who have had at least a couple of high quality co-ops or internships because they come into their senior capstone  courses with more mature attitudes and more sophisticated approaches to communication tasks.

If I had one piece of advice for engineering students it would be this: Make sure you have at least one co-op or internship before you start your 3000-level courses.  The experience will be well worth the time!

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