VOLUME 31, NUMBER 17 THURSDAY, January 27, 2000

Center bridges communication gap
Center for Technical Communication helps engineers communicate more effectively

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Engineering students at UB aren't just getting a technical education these days. They're learning to communicate more effectively, a skill that instructors at UB's Center for Technical Communication hope will give their students an edge in the working world.

The center, part of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is working on "bridging the technical communication gap" by offering classes and workshops that focus on information organization and improving speaking and writing skills. The center's director, Pneena Sageev, says one of the main goals is to build students' communication confidence.

Sageev "Engineering isn't only between (the students) and the computer," says Sageev, who came to UB in 1987 after an 11-year career as a publisher and editor with the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio. "They can do the most complicated equations, but they can't write a letter to a customer."

At Battelle, Sageev worked with researchers to improve their skills in drafting proposals and reports, and says it wasn't long before Battelle's clients approached her, perplexed at what they were witnessing.

"Members came to me and said, 'How come the engineers at Battelle can write such wonderful articles and we (can't)? What's the secret?'" she says they asked.

The secret, says Sageev, who authored "Helping Researchers Write-So Managers Can Understand," is knowing who the audience is, organizing the information and writing succinctly; in short, producing something that is accurate, concise, clear and readable.

Engineering students at UB learn the fundamentals of technical communication through several courses, including "Technical Communication for Engineers," "Engineering Procedure Writing," "Empower Your Technical Language" and "Managing Engineers' Communications."

"One of our main goals (is) to encompass all of the juniors and seniors," Sageev says. "We're reaching about 65 to 70 percent."

Anthony Smaczniak, who has worked in technical writing and publications management at Bell Aerospace, Veridian Engineering and Praxair, says courses such as those offered by the Center for Technical Communication help students simplify their writing.

"The technical level of any proposal (needs to be) scoped down to manageable size," Smaczniak says. "They (students) can apply this to any field, (and) can organize things a lot more clearly."

William Grunert, a lecturer in the engineering school who manages the center's workshop program, says clarity is key. "People don't read business documents for entertainment-it's to convey the information," says Grunert, who notes that for engineers who have been conditioned to pay attention to detail, it's easy for an idea to get lost. "They forget to organize for the less-scientifically savvy."

Students also learn new aspects of writing. For example, students enrolled in Smaczniak's technical-writing course must complete and present an intricate proposal on an engineering topic of their choice.

"It's the first time students are involved in the financial side," Smaczniak says. "They have to make (a project) economically feasible. They have to justify everything."

The center has worked with industry on improving communication, something Grunert says is in line with the university's initiative to bolster collaboration between the two.

Working with industry gives center staffers an opportunity to see how communication is evolving in the real world.

"It's very good for us to be constantly apprised of what is going on out there," says Sageev, noting that the center has been surveying graduates to obtain feedback.

Of some 200 responses to a Spring 1999 survey, 150 respondents shared how communication training helps them on the job.

"The tenor in all of (the responses) was that engineering skills are a given, (but) communication skills differentiate," says Sageev, pointing out that the survey responses indicated that an engineer spends 64 percent of his or her time on communication tasks, and only 36 percent on technical work. Many graduates also stated that an inability to give an excellent oral presentation in the workplace can be "career-limiting," Sageev says.

Such statistics reinforce the center's work with students, Sageev says, and is particularly evident when she gauges the progress of students in her "Technical Communication for Engineers" course.

"When we finish the class, it's really quite remarkable-when you see what they started with and what they ended with," Sageev says. "Many of them are so shy; giving an oral presentation is so painful.

"For us, seeing this growth-in confidence, it's really what keeps us going," she says. "This is our greatest satisfaction.

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