While the development of communication skills is critical to a successful career in engineering teaching these skills continues to be one of the biggest challenges for engineering faculty. A recent survey of students completing engineering internships indicated that their most frequent forms of communication were informal conversations and discussions either with other engineers (i.e., both in and out of discipline) or non-engineers (i.e., both with and without technical degrees). Additionally, students indicated that their internship experiences were significantly more effective at preparing them for future communication than their college coursework. This is likely because a majority of communication in the classroom and communication practice is focused on formal lab reports and/or discussions targeted towards expert audiences (i.e., other students and faculty). Currently, those students who do not complete an industrial internship (or co-op) are graduating from their engineering programs with limited perspective and practice of the communication requirements necessary for a career in engineering.
As a first step to understanding the gap in our curriculum, a survey was developed to investigate student perceptions of communication requirements. The survey asked students to indicate the expected frequency and importance of different communication audiences and types in their future career. To date, data have been collected from 178 incoming freshmen to understand their expectations for communication within their career. Freshmen were in their first semester of college, so they had little exposure to engineering experience or coursework. In parallel, data was collected from 55 post-graduate engineering employees to allow for comparison between students’ perceptions and the lived experiences of engineers in their careers. Overall, it was found that there were significant differences between student perceptions and the actual communication requirements of a career in industry. Student perceptions of importance of communication were better aligned with post-graduate data than expectations for frequency of communication. For non-technical audiences, frequency and importance of communication were underestimated, representing an important opportunity for faculty intervention through integration of non-technical communication skills into the curriculum. By integrating non-technical communication into the curriculum and discussing the prevalence of non-technical communication in industry, this will help to align student expectations with realities. To address the limitations of this study, data from engineering students at different stages of their college careers is being collected. Additionally, data collection is ongoing for post-graduate employees, which will allow for analysis of data by specific subgroups (undergraduate major, career experience, career sector, etc.). These data will again be compared to student perceptions to allow for identification of key opportunities for curriculum changes to help align student expectations with the lived experiences of practicing engineers.
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