Civil department, Campus Writing Program team up to improve communication skills

Strong communication skills might not be the first thing people think of when discussing key components of an engineering education. But the ability to comprehensibly communicate ideas and to propose solutions is an essential engineering skill. A pair of University of Missouri civil engineering faculty members and the Campus Writing Program teamed up to make sure engineering students have what it takes.

Enos Inniss, Assistant Teaching Professor, and John Bowders, William A. Davidson Professor, recently received an award from the Campus Writing Program (CWP) for their project, “Template for a Distributed Writing Program in Civil and Environmental Engineering.” The goal of the project is to keep strong communication skills — written and oral — a key part of the curriculum beyond the pair of core writing intensive (WI) courses already required of the department’s students.

“If you took one calculus course when you were a freshman, and someone asked you about it when you were a senior, you probably forgot it,” Bowders said. “The way the writing is, we need to distribute writing across the career of training so they learn basics, practice, learn a little more, and by the time they’re finished as undergrads, they’ve become a pretty accomplished communication person.”

Inniss said the civil engineering faculty kicked around the idea of a more formalized communication education effort in one form or another for nearly a decade and that the Campus Writing Program’s involvement finally gave it the traction needed to get rolling. The two writing intensive courses will remain, while the project’s summary stated that the remainder of the curriculum “will include WI designated writing assignments designed to provide the students with reinforced practice in technical communications in our discipline.”

The Campus Writing Program previously had worked with the Geology Department on improving communication skills in a technically based manner, and Inniss said the CWP jumped at the chance to implement something similar in the College of Engineering.

“They were very supportive and encouraging,” Inniss said. “We talked several times about what is needed to get ourselves where we need to be, and they provided resources, made contacts for us. We’ve been very enthusiastic.”

After getting the ball rolling, Inniss approached Bowders in large part because of his familiarity with what’s called an engineering communications toolbox. Bowders aided former English Department professor Martha Patton in putting together a collection of resources — including a style manual, research aides and more — to aid engineers in their communication efforts. The plan is to update the toolbox with faculty help and input from the College of Engineering library.

“It gives students lots of instruction on how we’d like to see things written, anywhere from cover letters to papers to lab reports to how to do presentations and make Powerpoint presentations and so forth,” Bowders said.

Communication skills are of major importance to potential employers, and Inniss said a big impetus for the program’s creation was keeping students competitive in the job market upon graduation.

“The additional concern is a lot of employers say one of the things they liked to see improved is the communication skills of engineers in general,” Inniss said. “We [as a department] just kind of took it personally. If that’s an issue with students graduating from colleges across the country, why not give our students a leg up by including more formalized communications in the curriculum?”

Being a strong communicator is critical for any engineer, but perhaps it’s of even bigger importance to civil engineers. Frequently, civil engineering projects benefit the public good and are publically funded, and civil engineers find themselves having to explain engineering solutions to citizens and politicians who have little or no engineering background.

“The people that control the funding, they aren’t techno geeks,” Bowders said. “They want to know why we need to build this, why to invest money in something, because they have to answer to taxpayers, and that’s not easy. So both oral and written communication is important to the success of [a student’s] career.”

Original story posted by Ryan Owens: