Engineering Communication in a Time of Uncertainties.    

This past month I had a chance to catch up with Ted Nolan, the communication coordinator for Engineering Strategies and Practice. Ted recently began a PhD in applied linguistics. What a time to begin an undertaking like this: with the Covid19 pandemic, the very ground of teaching and learning has shifted beneath our feet, making it hard to know what to expect next. Of course, our changing working environment is just one of the great unknowns we face in the world today. Ted’s PhD research takes a close look at these uncertainties and particularly the role that engineering communication plays in navigating them. In our interview, Ted explained:

“I have only been around engineering education for about ten years, and the world has changed a lot in that time. I have always been impressed by how engineering design embraces uncertainty–that is, reality–and how it is built to change with the times. None of that change, none of that flexibility and adaptability, is possible without communication. It’s a cliché, but it’s true, that today engineering design is done in teams because the problems it often solves–like those we face as a species–are so complex you need different sets of expertise to even understand them. There’s no way to effectively execute on a team of diverse skills and perspectives without communication throughout the process(es), and that is being acknowledged more and more.”

Ted expands on the communication practices of teams in an article to be published in an upcoming issue of The University of Toronto Quarterly, though a pre-print version is currently available online through Sheridan Source. Here, he focuses on “feedback loops” that emerge when student engineers collaborate on projects or other work. One idea, when expressed, builds off the one expressed before it and so on, often improving as it builds. While this phenomenon has typically been observed in a conventional physical classroom, our transition to virtual learning raises new questions about how to continue to facilitate this kind of constructive, developmental feedback. Ted sees an opportunity to harness the multimodal elements of virtual collaboration to this end:

“There is a ton of really interesting work on the use of language and multimodal communication in engineering design education, but it’s mostly pretty new work. Over the years, I’ve become particularly interested in the stages of writing that come before finally composing a document or deliverable. In the humanities, we might call this “pre-writing,” and working with students in those fields I have seen the same thing as I see in engineering: the problems are more often than not to do with the thinking and work that comes before writing a draft, and not just in the compositional process. So, I am focusing a lot on communication in that earlier process work. The fact that engineering design is so collaborative, and that documents are composed collaboratively, is another aspect that begs for more attention.”

As students ramp up work in their team-based projects this term, and will mostly be collaborating virtually, it is critical to use the tools available to us to continue having those valuable “pre-writing” conversations. After all, they are fertile grounds for the productive feedback that leads to refined thinking and higher-quality ideas. How we go about using these communication tools best raises yet more questions. I look forward to speaking more about these questions with Ted next time we meet.