Chapter 3: Literacies across the disciplines
The skill of communication is severely undervalued when it comes to the subjects of STEM. STEM is a group of subjects that include science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These subjects tend to advance society and shape the future for civilians. Communication is not considered tremendously important when it comes to STEM because of all the other skills that STEM students must learn and acquire. In most STEM fields, their jobs are primarily focused on the ability to fix issues and problem solve. Proper communication is an extremely important skill that, if not taken seriously, can prevent the advancements of STEM related research and technological advancements from being shared correctly to the public.
In “Communication in STEM Education: A Non-Intrusive Method for Assessment & K20 Educator Feedback” Mike Borowczak attempts to tackle the misconception that STEM majors and STEM related jobs do not need the use of soft skill sets (Borowczak 1). The major soft skill that Borowczak is attempting to target is the skill of communication. Borowczak explains that the benefits of effective communication are extremely important, and this skill is a pivotal ability of any successful STEM worker (Borowczak 1). As someone that is pursuing computer science and plans to continue with a software engineering graduate degree, I can agree with this stance from the author. In my previous education, not much stress was placed on the ability to present information in front of a group of people. At times there were required presentations, however not many of them were in STEM related courses. Now that I have attended two different universities, I can assure that very rarely is there communication and presentations incorporated into my computer programming courses. Collaboration is a major part of any job that involves any of these four subjects. With this being said, collaboration, quite literally, stems from effective communication and correctly perceiving relationships with fellow members of the team (Borowczak, 2). Borowczak later explains that the paring of STEM courses and laboratories have been become more popularized in order to increase the amount of collaboration and communication in these courses (2). In my personal experience, many computer programming classes that involve project-based assignments are joined with laboratories. Certain days during the week would be considered lecture days where students would take notes and listen to the concepts be explained by the professor. Typically, one day during the week is assigned as a lab day where students work together in order to complete an assignment that is centered around the concepts that were taught that week. With all this being said, stating that communication is an undervalued area for students that study STEM related fields. However, finding a method that to improve the communication skills in these students is the difficult part. In the next paragraph, I dissect another article that focuses on the same problem although it proposes a program to tackle the issue.
In the article “STEM Storytellers: Improving the Oral Communication Skills of STEM Graduate Students” the authors stress the importance that the skill of communication has on STEM fields (Willoughby). The authors later go on to explain that society is advancing at an incredible rate and STEM continues to make improvements. In doing this, STEM will keep making society easier for civilians, if not make it progress even further. In order to do this, scientist must be able to communicate their products and findings in a clear and precise manner (Willoughby, 2). The authors also emphasize that institutions and universities pay minimal focus on the importance of oral communication. With this being said, the overall premise of this article is to “develop a fellowship program for Ph.D. students that will provide[d] multifaceted training and practice in oral communication to prepare them to effectively convey science to people” (Willoughby, 3). As a computer science student, I completely agree with what the authors are indicating and demonstrating in this essay. I have witnessed firsthand, and even personally, that it is not always easy to communicate your solution to others, let alone the instructor of the course. This program will require students to record themselves presenting an idea or product that is under one of the STEM subjects previously stated. Then, the words that are used in the presentation will be broken down into three groups, counted, and evaluated by an equation to identify the amount of jargon in their speech (Willoughby, 3). By breaking down the amount of jargon that is present, students in their fields can recognize the difficulty it is for the audience to understand their presentation. Not everyone can conceptualize an idea when they do not comprehend most of the words that are being said to them. Similar to this article, I examine the research of another author tackling the problem that is, the lack of communication education in STEM related fields and majors.
In “How to Improve Communication Skills in STEM Students”, Danielle Prier confronts the world of science with the issue that communication is lacking in STEM. She labels this as a “cognitive gap”, an inability to communicate or explain a topic to someone that is not on the same level of education on the topic as the speaker (Prier 17). Prier first analyzes some teaching methods proposed by some professors in Singapore. Professors in Singapore developed two methods to conduct the experiment with, the first being the IRE method. This method “represents initiation of the question, the student’s response, and the teacher’s evaluation of the student’s response” (Prier 17). IRE method was found to discourage volunteering and communication of students. This was due to the critical evaluation after a student incorrectly answered the question. Furthermore, IRE did not encourage critical and creative thinking (Prier 17). The next method is known as the social constructivism method. On the other hand, this method encouraged more analytical and critical responses to the questions being asked. Prier continues by saying that this method increased the number of student-to-student responses and collaborations (Prier 17-18). This is an important element when it comes to engineering. Not only being able to explain your research and findings but being able to communicate critically with team members to accomplish a common goal is tremendously important. Many times, engineers are working in teams and are each assigned a problem to solve. If you are able to solve the problem but cannot effectively communicate how you came to the result, then you are a liability to the team.
In “What is Literacy?” written by James Gee, Gee explains the importance of communication and the different types of communication that exists. He further explains this as discourse, the way that communication is accepted in different groups and settings. He draws the comparison of discourses and “identity kits” (Gee 18). Gee further explains that when thinking of discourse, “think of a discourse as an “identity kit” which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act and talk” (Gee 18). Gee’s article relates to all three of the articles chosen because of this idea of discourses and identity kits in STEM. When communicating with your team, often times, you are working in a team that is in the same level of education as you. However, if you must present your findings or project to a business or an audience, all of them might not understand the jargon that is correlated to the field of work. This can cause for misunderstandings or even rejection because the audience does not know what the presentation was about. This directly relates to Gee’s definition of literacy; he describes this as the “control of secondary uses of language” (Gee 23). As an engineer or scientist in your respected field, you will have to talk to a lot of different people. Whether these be your authorities, acquaintances, customers, or even audiences. A lot of times you may not talk to all of them the same and use the same diction. The ability to switch between your critical thinking and solutions that you present to your boss and the questions and concerns that you have when solving a problem that you tell your acquaintances or partners can be drastically different conversations. This relates to all of the articles that I have chosen because they all deal with preparing STEM students for these types of situations. Effective communication, across any field or profession, is a mandatory skill to possess.
Each individual article that I chose either stressed the importance that communication and/or provided a plan to help students improve the ability to effectively communicate their information. When taking STEM courses, many times professors focus on more conceptual and problem-solving skills and exercises. While this is not a horrible idea, some attention needs to be drawn to other soft skills like communication and presentation. Without this, the findings and advancements that are discovered can suffer. If you can not effectively and clearly explain your results, then you can not expect for your audience to get behind your findings or solutions. Proper communication is an extremely important skill that, if not taken seriously, can prevent the advancements of STEM related research and technological advancements from being shared correctly to the public.
Borowczak, Mike. “Communication in STEM education: A non-intrusive method for assessment & K20 educator feedback.” Problems of Education in the 21st Century 65 (2015): 18.
Gee, James Paul. “What is literacy.” Negotiating academic literacies: Teaching and learning across languages and cultures (1998): 51-59.
Prier, Danielle. “How to Improve Communication Skills in STEM Students.” Communication and Technology in the Classroom: 17.
Willoughby, Shannon D., et al. Board 81: Stem STORYTELLERS: Improving the Oral Communication Skills of STEM Graduate Students. 2 July 2018, peer.asee.org/board-81-stem-storytellers-improving-the-oral-communication-skills-of-stem-graduate-students.