PCP: Point

Trevor Jenkins - 2B Management
Posted on: May 19, 2010

Preamble: This term, the ENVE 330 Field Sampling and Techniques course overhauled its teaching style. In order to “give students a chance to develop presentation skills,” the class’s lectures are now entirely peer-taught. The students were split into 9 groups, and each group was assigned a topic about which they will prepare and present a 3-hour lecture. This is to be done for the remaining 9 weeks of lectures.

When I first heard of the new trial of student-lectures for ENVE 330, I was intrigued by how students were being given a unique and innovative method to learn. What I was shocked to find was how much opposition the Iron Warrior staff had to it, and apparently the students undergoing this trial project. This trial offers a unique opportunity for students to develop communication skills, organization skills, and developing the ability to simplify complex ideas for anyone to understand.

Communication skills are constantly touted for their importance in engineering, despite the fact that a good number of those among us are really lacking in that department. Failure to communicate in a simple and easy way can lead to dire consequences- both professional and personal. Not being able to do the “sales pitch” for a new product or solution to a potential client can mean losing a big contract, which will severely limit your growth in a company.

Being aware of how you say a particular piece of information is also critical as something simple can be taken two very different ways. For instance, the phrase “when dealing with flowers, you can never use too much water” can be taken too very different ways. The first interpretation could be “plenty of water is required for flowers”, while the second would be “too much water is dangerous for flowers”. These two very different interpretations arose from the same phrase. While when dealing with flowers people generally know they require water but not to over water them, the same cannot be said for how much water a new patient requires when using a new drug, or how much water may be required for cooling a new material down.

These sorts of communication skills are something that you don’t learn by reading a book or sitting in a lecture. These require you to get up in front of people and start practicing, and using their feedback to revise your presentation skills in order to ensure that the flow and material are logical and easy to follow. By allowing students to give lectures and receiving feedback, individuals will know what they did well, what went wrong, and what they liked from seeing other people present. Practice makes perfect.We all know why our favourite professors kept our attention, and why others are able to solve insomnia when they get to the front of room. Getting the experience and making mistakes is the only way to know what you can develop any major skillset.

Student-led lectures are also a great way to help develop organization skills. Having to learn the material and understand it, make a lesson plan and then practice it is a key skill that many underestimate. It’s obvious when someone gives a presentation that is poorly prepared and obviously did it at the last minute- or worst- when they borrow someone else’ slides and seem to be seeing the material for the first time when the slide comes up. Being able to effectively manage your time to make sure you can get everything done is a huge undertaking, but also a great learning experience.

Finally, the opportunity to teach new material forces individuals to figure out how to best describe complex systems in layman’s terms. Technical individuals- especially engineers- have the habit of talking over the heads of their audience. Being surrounded by people who are generally “smart” means that we get stuck in the habit of expecting others to know all the basic principles of engineering to understand. No normal person does. Therefore, talking engineering goes WAY over their heads. For people who end up working on highly technical teams this isn’t usually an issue. For engineers who end up at public information sessions to defend their recommendations (most likely civils and enviros), doing this could have disastrous consequences. Getting the chance to get in front of a class and making the complex jargon from the textbook into something that’s understandable is a skill that has huge potential power.

From the outside, the student-led lectures proposal is a progressive step forward in engineering education. The potential is there for the students involved to greatly develop their organization, time management and communication skills. Whether or not that actually happens is anyone’s best guess…