Life hacks: Equipping students with industry's most underappreciated tool

Editor's note: Anne Lucietto is this month's Big Picture Interview subject. Read the interview from Plant Services' October issue here, and hear from Anne Oct. 24 in the "Strategies to Retain and Advance Women in Industry" webinar.

Recently I spoke to a few friends – some in academia and others in industry. It was funny to hear them tell me that ALL technical students are bad at communicating. When I asked why, they suggested that it was true because these students ALL score well on the math portion of standardized tests and not well on verbal. Making generalizations like that is unfair, inaccurate and unproductive. I’ve seen every combination of scores you can imagine, so that is simply not true.

We also see similar variety in communication skills. Some students are talented speakers; others write quite well; and then there are some who don’t communicate well at all. These same friends also suggested that technical people were naturally introverted, which is also not the case! The truth is that we aren’t all the same, and that means our communication skills are also quite different.

The question is, what has been done to encourage students to communicate effectively? Many approaches have been tried. Writing Across the Curriculum is a great concept, but it hasn't been implemented in all places, and sometimes it's being forced on teachers and faculty who don’t have the skills of their own to teach, develop assignments, and then effectively grade them. So how do we help students gain the skills they need to successfully navigate a career? 

Studies and educator observations indicate that students are receptive to informal interactions and working together in groups. There are pros and cons to those activities. When some students hesitate to speak up, their more-aggressive peers can wind up taking over groups and group activities. Personally, I’ve used group and individual activities to encourage students to interact and learn more about the subject they are studying. One-on-one interaction with each student is critical to their success. Discussing course materials and the things that most interest them and then going out to meet people working in the field in industrial environments encourages students to interact on a technical basis. They discuss the topics, learn the jargon from their educator, and feel good about their interactions with those working in the field.

Sometimes this results from learning from their educator how to use common industry tools. For instance, I teach students in one of my classes how to use tube-bending tools before the field reps bring in challenges for them. When the reps come to class, students are ready: They know what they are doing; they engage in the materials; and they talk to the reps and to other students – all while improving their communication skills and interacting in ways that are helpful in industry. By the time the students move into their careers, they have experienced a plethora of relevant situations and are much more confident with public speaking. Several of my students have come back to share their successes and the fact that they appreciated that technique as an effective way to help them develop skills in a painless classroom exercise!

Another activity that other colleagues and I use to encourage this kind of informal interaction is having students choose a topic that interests them in the first couple of weeks of the semester. Then they are led through application of research techniques and library science guidance to build a research base to support further investigation of their chosen topic. Following that, they are encouraged to contact manufacturers, suppliers, and others involved in their topic of choice.

At the end of the project, they are asked to reflect on their experience. Most, if they put a lot of effort into the chain of assignments, say that they got a lot out of it. Some students have so impressed the people in industry with whom they interacted with their level of acquired knowledge that they received job offers. Others have helped their family develop an irrigation system, water filtration systems, and the like.

The successes that this type of assignment can generate are wide-ranging. Students are expected to work their writing skills, develop skills for interacting with people knowledgeable in their area of interest, and gain confidence. They demonstrate that confidence and ability to ask questions in their interaction with the people who come to class and invite them to their facilities. While they are not able to touch industrial facilities' equipment due to size and safety considerations, they learn how to interact with those who manage this equipment and gain even more confidence in their ability to interact with anyone willing to talk “tech” with them.

These students have excelled in their ability to communicate. Maybe I’ve found a means to help students improve their communication skills, maybe not. In any case, I’ve had so many students come to me and thank me for helping them manage that transition into the workplace and interact with their coworkers in a professional and respectful manner. Seeing them succeed in the workplace makes the hard work of being a professor so rewarding.

Last week I was able to connect with one of my former students – he graduated in 2016 – while at a conference in California. He made that trip in California traffic on last-minute notice. I reflected on his success in navigating, too, from one position into another as a young professional – the work that he and (as he related) another of his classmates are doing is pretty incredible.

What have you seen? Whether you're in industry or academia, what are your thoughts on what can be done to help students develop needed communication skills?