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The Case For Comfort: Oral Communication In The Engineering Curricula

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1996 Annual Conference


Washington, District of Columbia

Publication Date

June 23, 1996

Start Date

June 23, 1996

End Date

June 26, 1996



Page Count


Page Numbers

1.445.1 - 1.445.2

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Betsy M. Aller

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

1 .— - ..—. Session 1161 ,

— -.. . . . . The Case for Comfort: Oral Communication in the Engineering Curricula .

Betsy M. Aller Michigan Technological University

Speaking in public is not a comfortable task. Few of us approach it without some apprehension; certainly college students are, in general, considerably more nervous. Yet oral communication is of increasing importance and use in the industries where our students will end up, and our response to industrial needs has been to try to increase students’ opportunities for oral reporting. I’d like to present some ways in which we can help make students' oral communication experiences more successful, useful, and lasting by making them more comfortable.

When I first started teaching the oral presentation seminar for junior-level chemical engineering students at Michigan Tech six years ago, I inherited a course where each student gave two 10-minute speeches on some technical or scientific topic. The topic could be one they had researched in a journal, something covered in class, or, for those lucky enough to have co-oped, a review of that co-op or internship work. As students gave their speeches, their classmates and I would fill out evaluation folrns and give a numeric rating for that speech.

Unfortunately, the speeches were generally pitiful in every sense of the word. Most of the speeches were either vague and disorganized or overly-specific and subsequendy, incomprehensible. Student speakers were uncertain and often temified, standing alone in front of a class, tlyillg to convince us (and themselves) that they knew what they were talking about. Although a few students (particularly those who ‘d co-oped in industry) came through with clear, well-organized, lively speeches, they tended to be the students who least needed the experience anyway. Those students who desperately needed a successful speech or two under their belts were those made most wretched by the rule of a technical topic. Despite my best efforts to encourage and reassure speakers, most left the class still feeling unconfident about their speaking abilities.

As I wondered what it was about the class that made students, and their speeches, so miserable, I thought about my experiences teaching written communication. My first teaching experience was in Michigan Tech’s Writing Center, coaching students in their freshman English classes. I frequently saw students uncomfortable with essays that were disorganized, dull, and usually on a topic the student was not particularly interested in or knowledgeable about. When I met with a student whose paper was clear, specific, and precise, it was usually because that student knew a lot about the topic and cared deeply about passing that knowledge on to others. I increasingly became aware that a key problem with poorly-written papers was the lack of “ownership” by their authors, many of whom were uneasily just “killing ink” on an unfmiliar topic in order to get a grade.

This can hold true with engineering repom as well, as many of us have experienced. If even senior students in a capstone laboratory course don’t understand the audience for their report, the objectives of their experiment, what data they ‘re supposed to end up with and what it means when they do get it, they tend to produce poorly written reports--vague, unsure of claims, disorganized. They ‘re uncomforrdble writing the .

> -. . ?$iiii’ } 1996 ASEE Annual Conference Proceedings ‘S.,y:y’.?

Aller, B. M. (1996, June), The Case For Comfort: Oral Communication In The Engineering Curricula Paper presented at 1996 Annual Conference, Washington, District of Columbia.

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