Helping engineering students communicate effectively

By: Gerry Rucchin
June 18, 2018

Western Education and Western Engineering are teaming up in developing a pilot project that supports PhD students develop communication and critical thinking skills.

The Western English Language Centre has developed a six-week course to help engineering doctoral students improve their communication in their areas of research, which will help them during their comprehensive exams, said Matt Bazely, Director of the International Office for the Faculty of Education.

The communication goal for the course is to help students broaden their communication and presentation skills in a culturally competent way so their audiences can better understand their research aspirations and goals.

“The goal of the course is to help students learn how to communicate their research in a way that shows their expertise but is also tailored to their audience,” said course instructor, Professor Olga Kharytonava. “I should be able to understand what they’re talking about without being an expert.”

PhD student in civil engineering, Ibrahim Ibrahim is taking the pilot project after being nominated by his supervisor. So far, he’s enjoying the course. He’s impressed the modules have been created with engineering students in mind.

“This is what I found crucial. Engineers are known to be missing this communication part and they’re also known to be very expressive when it comes to data and to analysis but they cannot present their work. They cannot put it in a format that everyone can understand,” said Ibrahim.

Electrical and computer engineering PhD candidate Cesar Gomez volunteered to take the course after talking to the graduate office in the Faculty of Engineering. He’s learning that understanding his audience is the key to excellent communication.

“We usually communicate our ideas to other engineers. As a result, we assume those who aren’t engineers will understand us. Our instructor reminds the class that we’re talking to a person who isn’t an engineer. We’re encouraged to modify our jargon or to avoid using technical terms,” said Gomez.

Critical thinking skills are also being taught where students begin to recognize different ways of learning. Students can then apply different theories to different situations.

“It’s not about diminishing what they’ve done in the past or their own belief systems. It’s about saying there are different systems and we need to help students become aware of them,” said Bazely.

Kharytonava defines critical thinking as critiquing material in a constructive manner to improve the outcome. It’s the ability to look at the material and see different points of view, including implications, limitations and benefits.

“They look at the material and they don’t always know what to do with it, how to talk about it or how to present it,” said Kharytonava.

Ibrahim added that the amount of data engineering students collect during their PhD studies is challenging.

“I don’t know where to start. What has to be in the introduction? How should the data be presented? What counts as a conclusion and what would count as analysis? I hope by the end of the course I have a clear understanding of these tasks throughout my work,” said Ibrahim.

The course started on June 1. Each week focuses on a specific step in the research process and how communication and critical thinking is tied to that module. While it’s an intense six weeks, Kharytonava hopes the modules will increase her students’ confidence as they begin their second year of their doctoral program.

“Having been an international student myself, I know it can often be quite isolating, so knowing that you’re not alone on that journey and that there are people supporting you as well as specially designed courses such as this one is important,” said Kharytonava.