Training future engineers to become better communicators: The effects of engineering specific communication courses on student attitudes and identity
Darren L. Linvill1, Meghnaa Tallapragada2, Nigel B. Kaye3
1Associate Professor, Department of Communication, 2Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, 3Associate Professor, Civil Engineering, Clemson University
While confidence in science continues to be high in the U.S., trust in scientists and scientific organizations has been wavering (Funk, 2017; National Science Board, 2018). To build trust among publics, organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (i.e., NAS) have recognized the need for the scientific community to engage with its publics (see AAAS’ Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology; see Sackler Colloquiums of Science of Science Communication). AAAS and NAS have begun focusing their efforts in training STEM professionals to not only educate, but dialogue with their publics about the societal and ethical impacts of STEM research (Nisbet & Markowitz, 2015). Efforts are also being made by several universities to ensure undergraduate students majoring in STEM fields are also receiving communication training that would ensure future STEM professionals engaging in respectful and effective communication with their publics (Nisbet & Markowitz, 2015).
With an interdisciplinary team of researchers in engineering and communication, we developed a public speaking course tailored to the specific needs of engineering students and assessed the course’s effectiveness in training future STEM professionals. The Engineering Specific Public Speaking (ESPS) class, unlike the General Public Speaking (GPS) class, had tailored engineering specific public speaking assignments. Assignments in the ESPS class were geared towards training engineering students to communicate about engineering topics through formal presentations with their peers, with general audiences through social media, and to be able to take audience perspectives on societal and ethical issues of technologies. Students in the GPS class could pick topics not related to engineering and would present the typical public speaking assignments of informative and persuasive speeches. Engineering students were randomly assigned to either a ESPS or GPS class.
We conducted pre- and post- analyses comparing in the ESPS class (N=41) to those in GPS class (N=43). An a-priori power analysis revealed having about 34 participants for our paired t-test analyses would provide us with medium effects. Although researchers were unable to ensure exactly 34 students to be enrolled in both conditions (ESPS and GPS), the researchers felt confident that a sample size of 41 and 43 in each condition was close enough to produce small to medium effects. We found that students in both classes indicated an increase in intentions to engage in communication behaviors and their engineering identity, but only students in the ESPS class had a significant increase in attitudes towards communication.
Findings of our study suggest that having STEM professional participate in a public speaking class improved their intentions to engage in communication and improved their engineering identity, but for those in the ESPS class they also developed an increased positive attitude towards communication. As attitudes can have a significant impact on behavioral intentions and behaviors (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), we conclude by strongly urging future researchers to investigate more ways to nurture these positive attitudes towards communication among budding STEM professionals.
Fishbein, M. & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, attitude, intention, and behavior. Philippines: Addison Wesley.
Funk, C. (2017). Mixed messages about public trust in science. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/12/08/mixed-messages-about-public-trust-in-science/.
National Science Board (2018). Science and engineering indicators 2018. National Science Foundation. Retrieved from https://nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/report/sections/science-and-technology-public-attitudes-and-understanding/highlights.
Nisbet, M. C. & Markowitz, E. (2015). Public engagement research and major approaches. Commissioned Annotated Bibliography in Support of the Leshner Leadership Institute American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved from http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/content_files/Biblio_PublicEngagement_FINAL11.25.15.pdf.
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