Island University Mechanical Engineering Students Use Improv to Enhance Communication Skills

Published: November 02, 2017

Island University Mechanical Engineering Students Use Improv to Enhance Communication Skills

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – In today’s job market, workforce experts not only expect engineers to have rich technical knowledge but to also be effective communicators with a variety of audiences. Through the Minority Serving Institution Measuring College Value project, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi is working to enhance oral and written communication skills for Island University science and engineering majors.

In 2016, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was awarded a $325,000 grant from the Strada Education Network to get the project off the ground and through the collaboration of an “Innovation Team,” which is composed of individuals from various departments across campus, it was discovered that theatre techniques could be used to help engineering students with communicating science.

“It is exciting to see this multidisciplinary collaboration happening on our campus,” said Dr. Amy Aldridge Sanford, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Communication at A&M-Corpus Christi. “This grant project requires collaboration between faculty from different departments, staff from multiple offices, and is an opportunity for local employers and the University to work together for our students.”

The Island University’s Department of Engineering and Department of Theatre and Dance joined efforts to create the Communicating STEM Workshop as just one of eight initiatives within the Minority Serving Institution Measuring College Value project. During the workshop, improvisation techniques and theatre activities were used to prepare engineering students to communicate technical information to a non-expert audience.

“It has been rewarding to help engineering students communicate their research agenda,” said J. Don Luna, Chair for the Department of Theatre and Dance and Professor of Theatre at A&M-Corpus Christi. “The engineering students are very enthusiastic. They really surprised me because they were engaged and willing to take chances and risks.”

Students taking the senior engineering project management course engaged in exciting improvisation techniques based on the work of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science methodology, where Luna studied with the Center’s Summer Institute in 2011. Under Luna’s guidance, engineering students were challenged to explain research projects in non-technical terms as in a cocktail party setting, while theatre assistants pretended to be guests at the party. In other activities, theatre students pretended to be children, high school students and a television audience.

“The workshops have been useful and have helped me to prepare my speech and better communicate my ideas to the layman or someone who would not necessarily understand my technical jargon,” said Miles Segler, a senior in the engineering program. “This workshop has been a fun experience and I know it will improve my communication and speaking skills.”

While Luna led the workshops, several theatre students were on-hand to share their own expertise.

“It has been exciting to find people who need improvisation skills,” said Micah Knapp, theatre improvisation student and workshop facilitator. “It is the first time that I have applied what I have learned in theatre to assist someone who may change the world with their scientific studies.”

The workshops took place over the course of three Saturdays during October and are just one of the project’s many initiatives. Plans are in the works to expose engineering students to technical writing workshops, plant tours, field trips to local companies and implementation of engineering focused learning communities into the first-year learning experience.