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“More Than Just Engineers” How Engineers Define And Value Communication Skills On The Job.

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Communication - Needs and Methods

Tagged Division

Liberal Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1391.1 - 15.1391.10



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Paper Authors

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Christine Nicometo University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Kevin Anderson University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Traci Nathans-Kelly University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Sandra Courter University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Thomas McGlamery University of Wisconsin-Madison

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

“More Than Just Engineers”: How Practicing Engineers Define and Value Communication Skills On the Job Abstract

While most professional and academic sources have expressed a need for engineers who possess strong communication skills, what these skills are actually defined as on-the-job remains somewhat vague in the literature. In this mixed-method study of practicing engineers from industry and governmental engineering workplaces, we heard and observed some answers to help define what communication skills engineers are actually practicing in their jobs. Through qualitative data collected over the past two years in six workplace case studies (including over 50 hours of observation and more than 50 interviews), interviews of engineers and their managers (N=91), and surveys of engineers and engineering managers (N=162), three main themes emerged to provide insights into what engineers mean when they say they value “effective communication” in other engineers. The first theme was what numerous engineers in our study described as “the big picture,” or the ability to effectively speak, write, and interact with audiences who were outside of their specific discipline, work group, or focus. Our second theme centers on an engineer’s willingness and self-motivation to initiate communication with others and to seek out resource information through informal interactions. Finally, the third theme involves the ability of engineers to listen carefully to others in order to do their best work and achieve results that are valued by their stakeholders (clients, managers, co-workers). Understanding these three themes can inform more authentic and engaging ways of teaching engineering students. Teaching improvements are needed, as one interviewee put it, because “Good engineers typically are more than just engineers….I need someone who I can drop in [who] can communicate effectively today.”

Introduction to the Problem

“Someone can be technically brilliant, but if that person can’t communicate or work with others, what use is their skill?” As engineering educators, we have all heard this question and posed it frequently to our students as well. However, in this mixed-method study of practicing engineers, we heard it resoundingly echoed back from industry and governmental engineering workplaces. While the answer to the question is obvious, what it means to be an engineer who can “communicate” is not as easy to define.

Increasingly in recent decades, the engineering field has recognized its need for engineers who have strong communication skills1. In fact, ABET curriculum requirements ensure that institutions teach those skills to their graduates2.While several studies of engineering undergraduate curriculum3,4 have shown that communication skills are being taught primarily through technical reports and presentations, other studies have indicated5,6 that these may not be the most, and certainly not the only, required skills needed in engineering workplaces. For many communication instructors who have little, if any, direct experience with engineering workplaces outside of academia, it can be challenging to know how to tailor courses to develop a more interpersonal communication skill set in students. Indeed, as Trevelyan pointed out in his study

Nicometo, C., & Anderson, K., & Nathans-Kelly, T., & Courter, S., & McGlamery, T. (2010, June), “More Than Just Engineers” How Engineers Define And Value Communication Skills On The Job. Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16018

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