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Critical Balance Point: Considerations for Integration of Communication and Professional Skills into the Undergraduate Engineering Curriculum

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2019 ASEE PNW Section Conference


Corvallis, Oregon

Publication Date

March 20, 2019

Start Date

March 20, 2019

End Date

March 22, 2019

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Paper Authors


Rachael E Cate Oregon State University

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Rachael Cate:
Dr. Rachael Cate received her MA in rhetoric and composition from Oregon State University in 2011 and her Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Research from Oregon State University in 2016. She joined the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Oregon State University as a member of the professional faculty in 2016. In this role, she provides engineering communications instruction to students as they progress through the senior capstone project and develop relationships with project stakeholders in industry. She also supports engineering communications program development, research, and implementation. In addition to her Ph. D. research interests in service learning, program design, and qualitative research, she is also collaborating on research in the areas of communications-related success factors of recent engineering graduates in industry and effective tools for instructors of integrated engineering and communications courses.

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This presentation (only) will address the integration of communications and professional skill instruction into coursework in the discipline of engineering. Initially, the presentation will provide background and justification for an interdisciplinary approach to be taken to instruction of professional, teamwork, communication and project management topics in design engineering education. This background will include concepts from transformational education theory, experiential education theory, and case studies from engineering education programs. Next, the presentation will survey a variety of concerns that arise when introducing professional and communication skills into an existing technical undergraduate curriculum. These concerns include: cultural demands of interdisciplinarity; options for how early, how much, and with what emphasis to integrate these skills; and likely challenges communication and professional skill instructors face based on their co-instructional situation, the engineering program, and student perceptions. After introducing this variety of concerns, the presenter will focus much of the remainder of the presentation on offering her own experience navigating the terrain of integration of a communications and professional skills curriculum at a large northwest public university’s school of electrical engineering and computer science. As a part of her experience, she was asked to develop and teach a communications curriculum for undergraduates that would meet ABET outcomes, fulfill the university’s disciplinary writing instruction requirement, and support students in preparedness for work in industry upon graduation. This communications skill integration began with co-teaching an ECE senior capstone design year and since has expanded to a two-term junior design course, collaborative developmental research, “innovative program” development, and a charge to support faculty in incorporation of communications and professional skills throughout the broader undergraduate curriculum. Now in the middle of the third year of development, the presenter’s strategy and approach to providing the needed instructional and program development support has shifted over time based on several key realizations (which she calls “turning points”). These turning points include: acquisition of “critical knowledge” about the needs and values of the school, the students, and co-instructors; collaborative reflection on frames of thought in the process of auto-ethnographic research with a co-instructor; and identification of a “critical balance point” between the need to engage in curriculum planning using best practice research and the need to maintain maximum flexibility in order to allow “primary” disciplinary demands to shape the overall curriculum and learning experience. The presenter will offer her insights into how others teaching communication and professional skills in engineering might intentionally steer themselves toward critical knowledge acquisition and collaborative auto-ethnographic reflection in order to discover what the critical balance point may be in their situation. Ultimately, to pursue a critical balance point, the presenter will suggest that co-instructors and program developers on both sides of the technical/non-technical divide should engage collaboratively in processes of deepening instructional, cultural, and perspectival awareness to create a balance between technical, communications, and professional skills that encourages students to realize a highly-integrated, multi-dimensional view of what it means to be an engineer and enriches the discipline of engineering on the whole by advancing this view.

Cate, R. E. (2019, March), Critical Balance Point: Considerations for Integration of Communication and Professional Skills into the Undergraduate Engineering Curriculum Paper presented at 2019 ASEE PNW Section Conference, Corvallis, Oregon.

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