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Don't Look at Your Shoes! Getting Engineers and Scientists to Engage with Audiences

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Communication as Performance

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Scott A. Morris University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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Dr. Scott A. Morris received his PhD in Agricultural Engineering in1992 from Michigan State University and has worked in industry both directly and as a consultant on a wide range of projects.

Based at the University of Illinois since 1992, Dr. Morris developed a nationally-recognized research and teaching program, and was one of the first faculty members to offer asynchronous computer-based online content.

Dr. Morris teaches engineering courses both on the Urbana-Champaign campus and globally through the extramural Masters of Science online program.

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A first-year graduate seminar is used to work with students to alleviate shyness and speaking anxiety, add methodology for speaking effectiveness and incorporate cultural cues when giving technical presentations. The core intent was to get students - particularly those who are not native English speakers - to be comfortable and to improve on monotonal, rote recitation from memorized scripts. The effort has been fortunate to draw on experienced speakers, workshop coordinators, theater and public speaking techniques. While this is a work in progress, ongoing assessment has shown remarkable results in individual student performance and comfort level in public speaking from a student demographic where this is often not the case.

Drawing on diverse materials and exercises for both examples and tutorial help ranging from TED talks to in-class roleplaying, the course progresses from the basics of giving and receiving feedback to overt exercises in analyzing and understanding a seminar audience before a presentation is given. This is done in order to build an understanding that understanding the audience, ranging from an individual in an elevator pitch to a large lecture hall listening to a formal scientific presentation, is of primary importance to having the audience understand and react favorably to the speaker. The objective is to shift the students’ focus from the instinctive presenter-focus to an audience-focused approach.

Exercises designed to help pronunciation and interpersonal skills were introduced early in the seminar and helped to build a sense of trust among a diverse group of students who had little interaction prior to the class. From this, feedback begins to emerge allowing students to not only provide constructive reviews to their fellow students, but to capably critique their own presentations. As the course progresses, concepts such as body language and inflection are added to the course as well as a limited incorporation of the role of cultural normative speaking habits and patterns. Modules on data presentation (to avoid endless numbing charts of detailed data that leave audiences stupefied), the skills of storytelling (rather than rote technical presentation), Monroe’s motivated sequence as a method of persuasion to action and introducing speakers in several diverse settings are included as well. Finally, handling question and answer sessions involving contentious issues as an “in the moment” exercise help build confidence and presence of mind, as were examples of well-staged corporate product introductions and other large-venue events. At the end of the class, students give a “mini seminar” incorporating the concepts learned in the class with classmates and instructor providing real-time feedback gives the students a chance to integrate the exercises and techniques. The presentation describes the concepts, building blocks, exercises and timeline necessary to achieve these steps in a limited time frame, how to assess progress, and how to contend with a widely diverse group of students working on very disparate topics of research.

Morris, S. A. (2016, June), Don't Look at Your Shoes! Getting Engineers and Scientists to Engage with Audiences Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26863

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