Communication is Critical For Engineering Students

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After 25 years of teaching UC Berkeley engineering students the writing and speaking skills they will need for their profession, the Technical Communication Program in the UC Berkeley College of Engineering faces potential elimination. The loss of this program will do irreparable damage to the future careers of engineering students and to the strength and reputation of the College of Engineering.

Most students do not major in engineering because they love to write. Nonetheless, after graduation, engineers spend 40 percent or more of their work days writing and giving presentations. Their professional success depends not only on their technical skills but also on their ability to communicate their ideas and proposals clearly and powerfully.

In 1980, Civil Engineering lecturer Charlene Spretnak helped spearhead a study of 1,000 UC Berkeley and Stanford Alumni in industry. Researchers found that, while UC Berkeley engineering graduates' technical skills were equivalent and often superior to those of Stanford graduates, Berkeley graduates lagged behind their Stanford peers in gaining promotions to management positions. Why? Stanford graduates had stronger communication skills than UC Berkeley graduates.

Spretnak developed a Technical Communication course that was quickly approved. Within 10 years, that course had become a full-fledged Technical Communication Program taught by seven lecturers and required by most engineering disciplines. The program now includes the core Technical Communication course, a communications course for non-native English speakers and transfer students, and a course in engineering ethics. Students don't always understand why the communications course is critical to their future careers. That's why former students are invited to speak to classes.

Jackie Teng, an Engineering and Computer Sciences graduate, put it this way, "I got the only full-time, continuing position in my firm, while other engineers were put on two-year, project-related contracts because I could write and communicate with our clients." Pointing to project contracts as the trend of the future, Teng called the Technical Communication course "the most important course I took during my double major and five years at Cal."

UC Berkeley engineering alumnus Mohinder Sandhu is a regional manager for the EPA who supervises projects that regulate hazardous waste from Montreal to San Diego. Sandhu told his fellow engineers, "In the marketplace, you will either be selling or 'unselling,' and in today's world you will not only be selling your skills and projects against those of other engineers in the United States, but due to outsourcing, you will be competing and communicating with engineers in India, China and the world at large. The ability to communicate will be the key."

EECS alumnus Mike Tai told students how conflict-resolution skills gained in the Technical Communication course enabled him to resolve conflicts on the job. Mechanical Engineering alumnus Paul Thompson, a product-design engineer at Apple, said frankly, "Today, Apple won't hire anyone who does not possess communications skills. In fact, after interviewing me, they just assumed that I had secured that training at Cal."

In a recent e-mail, Thompson added: "Not only does E190 teach engineers better communication, it makes them better engineers too. Many of the methods taught in E190 help engineers simplify their ideas and distill them down to the core concepts. This simplification often makes engineering problems easier to tackle and solve."

In a letter to Forefront, Berkeley's engineering magazine, Allen Merk, a project manager in petro-chemical development, wrote about the damage done by engineers in his field who cannot communicate well:

"Correspondence must be clear and succinct because it often forms a contractual commitment." Engineers with poor communication skills "not only created a poor impression with our clients, but often created problems that were detrimental to the progress of the project."

Our students deserve the best training we can give them to succeed in this challenging economy. Communication skills are more important than ever to engineers in their careers. Alumni careers are critical to the reputation and fundraising of the UC Berkeley College of Engineering. Why would a university in financial crisis consider uprooting a successful program that helps students become better communicators, more successful engineers and more appreciative alumni?

Today the core course serves over 400 students per year. "We're still thriving, with long waiting lists," says Maggie Sokolik, Program Director, "and students are still being urged to sign up early." We urge Dean Shankar Sastry, the engineering faculty and Chancellor Birgeneau to preserve this distinguished program, which helps our engineering students build the skills they will need to compete in the 21st century.


Susheel Bibbs a campus lecturer in Technical Communications. Reply to [email protected]

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