In this section, Dr. Short explains how the course was structured to help students develop their professional communication skills.
Strong oral and written communication skills are essential to being an effective engineer. Engineers give presentations and they write reports, and people need to be able to easily absorb what’s in both of those things. You can have a great design and you can put it out there, but if people can’t absorb it, it might as well not exist. Some of the students in this class may end up giving professional talks, and some of them may end up as faculty members themselves. An engineer is both a problem solver and a communicator, and one or the other doesn’t cut it. It has to be both.
Students in the Nuclear Systems Design Project class honed their communication skills by writing and presenting about their work in the class.
Ongoing Opportunities for Communication
One thing that I did in this course that hadn’t always been done in the past, which I think was absolutely essential, was to have regular scientific communication from the students in both oral and written form.
- Monthly progress report presentations: Each month, I had every student team of 3-4 people present a 20-minute progress report on what they had done so far as a team. That required them to talk about the background of the problem, the background of their sub-problem, how they solved it, where they were going, and how it meshed in with the rest of the design. They had to work together and actually communicate orally. We would nit-pick the heck out of them. In fact, I had the students evaluate each other, and oftentimes their ratings of each other were a lot lower than my ratings of them. I don’t know why, but they were each others’ best critics.
- Monthly short journal communications: Students were also required to submit monthly short journal communications on the work that they specifically had done, in the style of a scientific paper. A lot of students had never written papers or journal communications before. They had to read through examples, which they had to do anyway for the problem, and get their journal entries into that formal scientific writing style.
End-of-Term Opportunities for Communication
At the end of the course, we had the students assemble a final report and give a presentation as an entire group. This required them to put together not just a 4-page journal communication like they’d been doing, but a 150-page document detailing every aspect of their design. They had to describe the problem, explain why it was worth solving, talk about its relevance, explain their solution, prove that their solution was a good one, and describe next steps.
One of my favorite parts of the class was the combination of their dress rehearsal and final presentation. For the dress rehearsal, we held a late night pizza event where we had the students go through their entire final presentation, and I brought in a friend who works at a commercial nuclear plant to tear them to shreds. If they were going to be torn to shreds, I wanted it to before they were in front of a public audience.
When they gave their final presentation, it was fantastic, and I attribute that partly to the reaming we gave them a couple days before and partly to their perseverance all the way to the end. They really got everything together and made sure that not only was their technical information was in line, but the way they presented it, the way they organized the information on the slides, and the way they tag teamed the presentation, all of that was really great. This showed me that they didn’t just learn to put facts together. They actually learned how to communicate the information effectively.