Communications: A course that every engineering student needs before entering the professional world

By Jessie Ying

MEng students at 2018 Capstone Project Showcase

Whether you want to work at a Fortune 500 company or start your own business, communication skills are vitally important. They are consistently rated one of the top three attributes that employers look for on a resume.

In order to prepare our students for the professional world, the Fung Institute offers a year-long course called Communications for Engineering Leaders (E295) that trains students to write persuasive reports, deliver captivating presentations and engage diverse stakeholders.

MEng students at 2018 Capstone Project Showcase

In the fall, the students focus on improving their individual communication skills by enrolling in a section that best corresponds to their experience and goals. The division of the course into sections is a new change implemented this semester to accommodate students’ varied backgrounds and needs. There’s one that focuses on efficient written communication, one that centers upon writing for the general public, another upon techniques to make arguments “beyond the buzzwords”, and an advanced one on communications skills for leaders. The sections are taught by experienced lecturers and graduate student instructors (GSI) from fields ranging from English, Rhetoric to Business. Some of the past instructors like Jonathan McKinley and Sonia Travaglini have won awards for their teaching effectiveness.

Another change to the course this semester is the addition of breakout sessions. Every two to three weeks, the 30-people class breaks into groups of 10. Students give slide presentations and prepared and impromptu speeches within their groups and coach each other. The small size of the groups also allows each individual student to receive more attention and guidance from the instructional team.

MEng students at 2018 Capstone Project Showcase
“It’s particularly important for a Communications course to have a high teacher-to-student ratio. This allows students to work very closely with our instructional team: lecturers, coaches, and GSIs,” Alex Beliaev, Director of Capstone Experience, said.

After improving their individual skills in the interactive classrooms, students enroll in the second half of the course in the spring. This portion of the course focuses on team communication skills to assist students with their Capstone projects in which they work on real-world problems in teams. The course helps students to present their achievements in both written materials and verbal presentations.

MEng students at 2018 Capstone Project Showcase

The course also tries to address the challenge for many engineering presentations: how to both create an emotional appeal and deliver knowledge. Susan Houlihan, Lecturer and COO of Berkeley Executive Coaching Institute, encouraged students to keep the warmth and empathy found in interpersonal conversations in their professional presentations. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I leaving at home that I should be bringing to work/school?” she posed to her students. “People tend to neglect their authentic self and their most powerful communication skills when they are in the workplace. We want to encourage you to develop these talents.”

Past students have noted how the course has helped them beyond the classroom, for example, during job interviews.

“They provided me with another insight of professional study, which was different from my academic study experience before because it is not exam-orientated. What’s more, the staff from Fung Institute are extremely helpful. Julie and Jocelyn helped me to get prepared for behavioral questions, Alex spent hours working on improving my presentation performance before the on-site interview at Tesla,” Jingxian (Joanna) Zhao, MSE ’16 recalled.

But communication isn’t just about relaying information. It also concerns with thinking from other people’s points of view and developing empathy. That’s why one of the past assignments for the course challenged students to think about the ethics of their projects — the unintended consequence that came with their engineering.

Due to the importance of communications for engineers, the College of Engineering is working on developing a similar undergraduate course that would teach undergraduate engineers communication skills beyond writing technical reports and documents. In this course, students will learn how to produce stories for a broader audience and across different medias.

Click here For more information about the E295 course.