Engineering a Way for U Students to Communicate

The Daily Utah Chronicle is a great little newspaper?just ask anyone who works here. But seriously, the Chrony published one news article in particular that caught my attention last week, and I haven’t been able to shake the idea of it since.

Apparently, the mechanical engineering department is attempting to implement a program that integrates communication skills into the hard science curriculum.

This is a great idea. In my three and a half years on campus, I’ve known more than my share of engineers who couldn’t communicate effectively to save their lives. This is unfortunate, because there are few professions that depend more on a person’s ability to convey ideas.

Engineering, in general, is a broad field that spans a range of complex disciplines; to develop your skills in any such discipline requires good teachers and good textbooks. An engineer who cannot communicate orally makes a lousy professor, as no student can make sense of the information he or she attempts to convey. And if no engineer were able to write organized, logical and informative textbooks, then the secrets of the science would quickly die out.

Engineers who teach invariably do research?if they didn’t bring in research dollars, then no university would be willing to house them. But the value of research is lost when the engineer is incapable of publishing his or her findings in an intelligible written form. Don’t want to do research? Then work in industry, where your employer will expect you to write and communicate as well as any secretary, accountant, or human resources director who works for him or her.

To be short, no one exempts engineers from having communication skills when they reach the real world, so they do not deserve that exemption while they’re in school.

During the time I’ve spent in the chemical engineering department here at the U, the total training I’ve received in communication has consisted of a 19-page pamphlet of common writing rules that the professors knock me for breaking when I write lab reports.

Most engineers excelled in science and math in high school?not English or the humanities. So, if anything, they need more training in communication skills than any English or communication major.

However, the coin has two sides. What engineering students don’t know about communicating is just a drop in the bucket compared to what most other students don’t know about math and science. This is terribly unfortunate, because technical skills are just as valuable in the real world as are communication skills.

The average humanities major can fulfill the university’s quantitative reasoning requirement by taking math classes that a lot of engineers would have taken in junior high. The physical and life sciences component of the intellectual explorations requirement is even easier to fulfill. General education requirements do non-science majors a disservice by failing to challenge them analytically and teach them how the world works.

The best evidence I can give to support this point is straight out of the newspaper. Current U.S. intelligence suggests that Osama bin Laden may possess a “dirty bomb” containing radioactive material that would disperse upon explosion. The bomb is intended more to scare people than hurt them, but most Americans don’t know that (which is why the bomb would be so effective in scaring them).

A dirty bomb is not a nuclear bomb because it contains traditional explosives not capable of instigating a nuclear chain reaction. A dirty bomb is barely more damaging than a regular bomb, because once its radioactive material is dispersed, the concentrations would be so small that anyone outside the immediate vicinity would probably not even increase their cancer risk.

Beyond the science of how the bomb works, there are other factors limiting the ability of a dirty bomb to harm significant numbers of people. If the bomb contained a large amount of radioactive material, it would have to be well shielded so as not to kill the person carrying it before he or she could detonate it. Thick layers of lead would make the bomb very heavy. Imagine an Arab-looking man trying to lug a 200-pound suitcase through customs without seeming suspicious?it just wouldn’t happen under the heightened sensitivity of the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere. Also, many customs officials secretly carry pager-sized Geiger counters intended to detect hidden radioactive materials.

Even if someone did sneak a dirty bomb into the United States, the major damage to the American public would be more psychological than physical, yet people remain afraid. The average person in the United States does not have the scientific aptitude to evaluate the circumstances and potential threats of an increasingly high-tech world. People routinely seek health care, but know nothing about how the human body works. People are afraid of things like nuclear technology, genetic engineering and virtually any kind of chemical, but mostly because they lack scientific understanding.

If engineers are to become better communicators, then the general public should respond by listening to what they have to say. The humanities majors of the world owe it to themselves to reduce their fear quota by substituting media-generated opinions for genuine scientific inquiry.

As you register for next semester, think about signing up for a physics or calculus class?it’ll be good for you. But if you hate it, just don’t complain to me?I’m not much of a communicator.

Ashley welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].