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Communication Skills Set ECE Students Up For Success

Atlanta, GA

The stereotype that engineers are brilliant thinkers but poor communicators persists in the workplace. Those engineers who fit the stereotype run the risk of having a great idea never see the light of day simply because they can’t communicate it to key stakeholders. Overuse of technical jargon, lack of understanding of an end user’s needs, or even just plain bad grammar can all result in missed opportunities.

But a program in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) called the Undergraduate Professional Communication Program (UPCP) is banishing the stereotype one poorly-worded document, incoherent PowerPoint presentation, and ineffectively organized resume at a time.

Launched in 2000 by senior academic professional and UPCP director Christina Bourgeois, the initiative began as a way to tick the box for a new Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) requirement. It has grown into a robust, value-added program that enhances students’ communications skills, making them known among industry recruiters not only as highly trained experts with a wealth of technical knowledge, but also skilled writers and presenters with the ability to translate their ideas to a variety of audiences.

The program is unique in that it is embedded in the ECE curriculum starting in the sophomore year. ECE students get their first exposure to technical communication in the required ECE 2031 Digital Design Laboratory course, where they focus on distilling information to the essential components for their end user. That includes condensing a project proposal into a 10-minute presentation and summarizing their entire project in no more than 650 words.

Next, a junior-level required course called Professional and Technical Communications for ECE (ECE 3005, or the out-of-classroom version, ECE 3006) covers topics such as the role of writing in engineering; conventions and standards of technical writing; document structure, formatting, and content; audience analysis and appropriate writing style; and strategies for designing and delivering effective oral presentations. The course takes the innovative approach of applying the principles of design thinking to the writing process, teaching students to view documentation and presentation in terms of problem framing and problem solving. The final project for the course is one 5 to 7 page written document and one 10-minute oral presentation.

One key to success in the class is buy-in from the student. They are allowed to choose the content they want to develop and the type of document they want to write. The primary consideration is that it must be for a real-world end user and can’t just be written to fulfill the course requirement. Because they have the freedom to choose the document topic and presentation format, the projects they produce are relevant, user-focused, and results-oriented.

The deliverables can take many forms. Students have developed user manuals, technical documentation, journal articles, and website content. Likewise, they can use a variety of formats for their presentations, such as slides, posters, workshops, and training videos.
ECE 3006 is an online hybrid course that provides flexibility for students who participate in co-curricular activities such as internships, undergraduate research, or co-ops. It satisfies the same junior-level communications requirement as 3005 and gives students autonomy over the direction of their coursework. In this class, it is understood that the final project will come from the co-curricular activity.

“Real-world buy-in is already there because students realize they have to write and present for a job,” said Anna Holcomb, assistant director for UPCP and instructor for ECE 3006.

According to Bourgeois, ECE 3005/6 was intentionally designed as a non-letter grade degree requirement because a pass/fail system promotes self-directed learning motivated by personal growth and development. Bourgeois notes that pass/fail grading enables students to focus on knowledge acquisition and skills application rather than achievement of a specific grade.

 “We are creating a culture of communication. We want students to know that engineers are communicators. Pass/fail evaluation, where deliverables are rated as effective or ineffective, fosters more robust and useful feedback, which aligns more closely with real-world performance assessment. It also allows students to take risks and really focus on their communication skills instead of getting a grade,” said Bourgeois.

And risks they do take. Some of the projects to come out of the course include an instruction  guide for the Eta Kappa Nu student organization’s camera, recruitment materials for the Georgia Tech women’s rugby team, an Instructables page on a hamster tracker wheel, and website content for the campus unicycle club, all of which have been pushed to the public domain.

In addition to courses, UPCP also offers tutoring and support from ECE Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs). GTAs can assist with writing assignments and presentations for any ECE course, and they can work with students who are preparing for an interview, writing a scholarship application essay, or designing a poster for a conference.

GTAs keep regular office hours in the Coleman Professional Communications Studio on the fourth floor of the Van Leer Building. The space offers open seating, cubicles for individual study, and two conference rooms for meetings and presentations. There’s also a shelf filled with board games and, of course, reference books on writing.

“We want the space to feel like a refuge for students—a place they can come to study, get help with a writing project, and connect and socialize with peers over a round of Uno or Battleship,” said Bourgeois.

The creation of the Coleman Communications Studio was made possible by a donation from Harriet Coleman in honor of her late husband Jeff Coleman, BSEE 56. Her son Michael Coleman, BSEE 82, saw the need for a dedicated space for the program.

“I was an EE student at Tech in the late 70s and early 80s. While I was at Tech, there was no connection between my liberal arts courses and engineering classes. The communications group’s goal of combining the writing and presentation components with the engineering curriculum is likely to provide a more engaging education experience with better results than what was available to me,” said Coleman.

And the results speak for themselves.

Computer engineering major Donghoon Shin describes himself as a quiet international student who could barely hold conversations with the recruiters who visited the School. After going through ECE 3005, he had the skills and confidence to land his dream job with Samsung Research America in Mountain View, California.

Neha Tibrewal applied what she learned in ECE 3005 to write a training manual for interns and new hires at the software company HyTrust, where she worked as a summer intern. Her manual is now being used by everyone in the company’s Data Control Division.

Some of the successes are less tangible, but just as gratifying.

“ECE 3005 was a class I never wanted to take. It didn’t make sense why an engineering student would have to take an entire class dedicated to communication. But I’m so glad I took it. The class gave me a larger understanding of what it’s like to work in the real world. I now have the skills and knowledge to write and present my ideas with an end-user in mind—something I’ll use every day once I leave Tech,” said electrical engineering major MacKenzie Burger.

Additional Photos

UPCP Team at ECE Rush

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Last revised May 15, 2020