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Professional communication skills for engineering

professionals

Aletta Nylen Arnold Pears


Dept. of Tnformation Technology
Uppsala University
Uppsala, Sweden
aletta.nylen@it.uu.se arnold.pears@it.uu.se

In this paper we present an approach to developing


Abstract- Oral and written communication proficiency is professional communication skills in engineering students.
an important professional skill for engineering graduates. When this work was started, we focused primarily on written
However, developing these skills is often poorly integrated into communication. The work has then gradually expanded
the engineering curriculum. We present a three year towards including oral communication, but some of the work
integrated approach to developing professional competence in presented here has a focus on writing. Oral and written
oral and written communication, which has been implemented communication skills have a lot in common. For example,
in the IT engineering program at a Swedish research
explaining a concept requires being able to adjust the amount
university. In the paper we describe the educational approach,
of context that need to be presented in order for a specific
the nature of assessment items and measures taken to ensure
audience to be able to understand, no matter whether it is
progressive skills development in order to ensure that
done orally or in writing. Hence development in written
graduates emerge with fuHy fledged communications skills.
communication will also be beneficial for oral
The goal of the paper is to describe a successful model for
communication and vice versa. The differences between the
professional skills development, and to encourage a continuing
dialogue on how to best equip students with communication
two forms of communication are, however, significant
skills for professional practice. (Abstract) enough to motivate that they both need to be practiced in the
education.
Keywords-engineering education; communication skills;
In the literature, there are two main approaches to
professional competencies; (key words)
teaching professional communication skills - those where
communication is taught in dedicated courses [3] [4] and
I. INTRODUCTION those based on writing across the curriculum (WAC) [5],
Professional engineers use communication for many where teaching is done in several courses throughout the
different purposes, e.g., pitching ideas, describing solutions, education. Furthermore, communication can be taught in
reporting results, discussing work with collaborators, general language courses or in core subject courses, within
customers, etc. Graduating students need to acquire the the discipline, where it can serve both to enhance learning
necessary communication skills and become familiar with a and to practice professional activities [6].
broad selection of styles during their education. The The approach presented here is an across the curriculum,
American Computing and Accreditation Commission within the discipline approach to developing both oral and
(ABET) acknowledges this, e.g., in their general criteria for written communication skills. The approach has been
accrediting engineering technology programs [1] where "an implemented in the first three years of the TT engineering
ability to apply written, oral, and graphical communication program at Uppsala University. Our approach has been
in both technical and non-technical environments; and an developed to address problems that were discovered through
ability to identifY and use appropriate technical literature;" a student survey in 2012. We describe the ideas behind our
is listed as a required student outcome. approach, what has been done to achieve progressive
Many teachers regard teaching the main course subject development, how we work with assessment, and challenges
their only task and do neither teach nor comment on how that we have addressed in our design. The ideas presented
weil students communicate within the subject. TT faculty are constitute a framework that can be used to develop other
hesitant to grade communication skills due to a perceived competencies such as group working skills and information
lack of language expertise or because they find the task literacy and they are also valid for other branches of
tedious [2]. At Uppsala University, a Swedish research engineering education.
university, a student survey shows that isolated efforts, often
in the form of writing assignments or oral presentations, have 11. BACKGROUND
been made to improve the situation, but more often than not,
The LT engineering program at Uppsala University, in
students do not get the feedback they need to be able to
likeness with other engineering programs, aim at educating
develop their communication skills.
students to become competent professionals. This means that
the students do not only have to learn their core subject, they

978-1-4673-5261-1/13/$31.00 ©2013 IEEE


also have to develop a number of competencies that are 65 students that were asked, 27 participated which gives an
essential to professionals. We refer to OECD [7] for a answer ratio of 42%.
definition of a competency:
Slightly less than half of the students answered the
"A competency is more than just knowledge and skills. It survey. We cannot be sure of how representative this group
involves the ability to meet complex demands, by drawing on is for the total student body. However, opinions expressed by
and mobilising psychosocial resources (including skills and a large number of students (>80%) in this sampIe would be
attitudes) in a particular context." strongly represented even if all other students were of a
different opinion. Tt is also clear, both from statistics and
In this work, we focus on communication ability for TT
from free text answers, that both students who are interested
engineers, which OECD describes by
in and/or strong in writing and students who are not are
"the ability to communicate effectively is a competency represented.
that may draw on an individual 's knowledge of language,
practical IT skills and attitudes towards those with whom he
or she is communicating". 70%
To graduate from engineering programs at Uppsala 60%
University, the students must
50%
"demonstrate ability in both national and international 40%
contexts, to, orally and in writing, in dialogue with different
30%
groups, clearly present and discuss their conclusions and the
l 20%
knowledge and arguments thatform the basis for these." [8]
10%
This requires students to be skilled at communication
within their subject, and to be able to adjust their 0%
communication to different situations and different audiences Unsure Yes No
that they may encounter professionally.
Figure 1: Previous writing training.
Study programs at Uppsala University, typically consist
of a collection of courses, most of which are in the program's
A. Writing training
core subject. In the lT engineering program, isolated efforts
of including professional skills development have been done, As shown in Figure 1, the survey showed that 60% of the
but there has been no previous attempt to structure this participating students say that they have had previous writing
development across the education. training in their education, 20% that they have not had
writing training and 20% are not sure.
In 2012, we explored the students' view on the current
writing training situation in the lT engineering program at Students that reported having had writing training in their
Uppsala University by conducting a survey. Although the education were asked to explain in what courses and how
survey focuses on writing, the results have been used as a that had affected their writing skills.
basis for developing both oral and written communication Half of those students (8 out of 16) reported having
education. writing training in 1-2 courses, 2 wrote that writing training
In the survey, we asked the students occurred only in project courses, and 6 reported that they had
writing training in many courses. Of the 9 students who

if they have had writing training previously commented on how these courses has contributed to
during their education, development of their writing skills, 5 reported that they could
not see any development. 3 of these students also mentioned

if they think that writing training is relevant to
that they had not gotten any feedback on their writing. 2
their education, and
students mentioned that they had learned the general

how good writers they perceive themselves to framework for writing reports, and another 2 students
be. claimed that they had learned to write reports by the practice
they got from these courses.
Free text answers and comments have been analyzed
with the aim of finding a variation in how students We conclude that writing practice is useful and that we
experience the use of written communication in TT and in need to make sure that the students get more of it. We also
how useful they perceive the writing training they have had see that not all students can learn from practice alone, and for
to be for their skills development. that reason, feedback is very important. This result agrees
with what is written about the need for feedback in [9]. In
Students from one course in year 2 and two parallel our survey, one student expressed that
courses in year 3 were asked to participate. Out of the total

1 Translation from Swedish.


"Many of the courses within the IT program has given
opportunity to practice writing, but never given specijic 50%
feedback on the writing. It didn 't develop much, but rather 45%
gave the opportunity to keep my previous standard up. ,,2 40%
35%
80% 30%
70% 25%
60%
20%
50%
40% 15%
30%
10%
20%
10% 5%
0% 0%
Don't 5 4 3 2 1
know

Figure 3: Self-assessed writing skills.

themselves 3 or 4 and only one student was rated 5. The


Figure 2: Relevance of writing training.
results are presented in Figure 3.

These figures suggest that 92% of these students need


B. Relevance
future writing training and at least 7% would have been
On the question how relevant writing training is to their better of with more writing training earlier in the program
education (see Figure 2), 70% thinks that it is a 5 on a scale according to their own estimate. However, if we look at the
1-5. Another 19% thinks it is a 4, 4% thinks it is a 3 and 7% 13 free text comments on this question, all but 3 students
do not know. Apparently, students think that writing is either express that they need more writing training or that
important for an lT engineer but this raises the question of they are unsure about the level of writing that is required.
why students think that it is relevant and how they expect to The other 3 students express that their general writing skills
be using writing in their profession. In 11 free text comments are good, but that they are unsure about their academic
to this question, we find that writing skills or about writing within their discipline.

5 students think that is it generally important to We expect the students to leam good general writing
be able to express one self correctly but that it skills in high school and to develop academic and discipline
has no particular importance for their profession specific writing skills at the university. Our interpretation is
therefore that the students lack of understanding of what

5 students think that it is important to be able to
writing in their subject is, leads them to rate their own
present ones work by writing reports
writing higher than an lT teacher would and that improved

2 students think that writing is important for communication education throughout the program is needed.
making their work (products and solutions) and
research available to others lll. PROPOSED APPROACH
lt is also mentioned that writing will be used for work We will present the ideas and theory behind our approach
applications, communicating with coworkers and that good before describing how it has been implemented at Uppsala
writing makes it easier to get through with opinions. University and explaining why this approach has been
chosen.
Our conclusion is that students have a general feeling that
writing is important but their image of how it will be used in
their future profession is not clear. In order to get through to A. Frequent practice.
students with the communication education that is provided, Students need reoccurring opportumtles to work on
we need to provide examples of different kinds of improving their communication skills. Students that are
professional communication. exposed to different writing assignments throughout their
studies perceive improvement in writing skills [10].
C. Assessment ofwriting skills Presentation skills are also improved by practice [11].

The students were asked to assess their own writing skills


B. Practicewithin the subject.
on a scale 1-5, where 5 is "good enough for writing a thesis",
3 is "good enough for my current level of studies" and 1 is "I Skills achieved in dedicated courses are not necessarily
definitely need more training". 4% of the students chose not transferred to other contexts [12]. This means that general
to rate themselves. 7% rated themselves 2, 85% rated language courses may not have the desired impact on the
students' development in professional communication,
which is in their core subject. In addition to being ways of
2 Translation from Swedish.
communicating, writing, explaining and discussing are also
ways of learning [13] and help to form the professional as writing", "Reviews/critiques of the writing of others" and
identity [14]. If the practice is not performed within the "More creative kinds of writing" although, in our case, the
discipline, these advantages will be lost. work is sometimes presented orally. "Team-based writing"
also occurs. Examples of assignments that our students
C. Instructions, feedback and reflection. encounter are paper reviews (summarizing), project
proposals (creative), lab and project reports (programs),
Moore concludes that without proper instructions,
literature discussions (summarizing, reviews) and project
guidance and feedback, the only effect of writing
presentations (programs). Sometimes our students present
assignments is to reinforce bad writing [9]. He also argues
and critique each other's work resulting in assignments that
that with proper guidance, students show significant
span three of the categories, summarizing, programs and
improvements both in writing skills and in content
reVIews.
knowledge. For oral presentations, [11] report getting good
skill development when using a combination of practice, Another important component in making students
reflection and peer review. In [15], the authors report that familiar with communication in their discipline is to provide
letting students reflect on their own work, in addition to examples. We are collaborating with the university's writing
formal assessment, advances the development of center to form a database of examples of student and
professional competencies. professional writing. Reading and presenting research papers
is also an activity that contributes.
D. Progression.
In oral communication, students need to become skilied
We believe that it is not only important that students in presentation techniques, but it is equally important that
practice communication regularly and that they get feedback. they become skilIed in discussing their subject. In addition to
In order for the students to continue progressing over time, it being able to present ideas and solutions, they need to be
is important that the level of communication required in able to relate to and ask and answer questions about material
assignments increases as the students mature. The feedback that is being presented and they need to be able to
should also meet students at their current level and promote communicate efficiently about their work when cooperating
further development. with others in teams.

Most approaches to oral communication education


IV. TEACHING METHODS
described in literature address presentation skills [4] [11].
To ensure that LT engineering students at Uppsala We find that there is also a great need for practicing
University are subject to reoccurring communication discussing the subject of studies. Students struggle with
practice, communication proficiency is a prioritized learning describing issues related to TT, concepts, solutions, etc. both
outcome for at least two core subject courses each of the first orally and in writing. In discussions, this is even harder since
three years of studies. This also makes it clear, for the a good description has to be provided without having as
students, when communication is practiced and assessed and much time to think about how to explain what they want to
stresses that development of communication skills is an say as when given a written assignment or preparing a
important part of the education. presentation. This is obvious even when students are to
describe and discuss what they have previously written
Factors like restricted time, limited access to information
about. The need for oral communication training that goes
and the stressful situation makes assessing professional skills
beyond presentation skills is supported by the work of Ruff
through traditional exams difficult [16]. In our approach,
and Carter [17], where professional communication goals
communication is therefore practiced and assessed in
were identified through focus groups and interviews with
different kinds of assignments, where students can prepare
software engineers and managers.
for oral assessments and have time to work on written
material. To practice and assess discussion skills, we work with
oral assessment of both theoretical content and practical
From the survey presented in Section TI, we learned that
work. With the help of follow up questions, the teacher can
students agree that writing is important for TT professionals
create a situation where the student can no longer rely on
but when asked how it is used, they seem to lack an answer.
previously prepared answers but has to create explanations
This also means that the character of communication in TT,
and solutions on the fly. Course evaluations show that
how it differs from general academic communication, is
students experience that they need to have a thorough
unclear. By providing students with a variety of different
understanding of course material to pass this kind of oral
kinds of weil-chosen communication assignments, we hope
assessment. Teachers experience that oral assessments make
to acquaint the students with professional style
students aware of what it means to understand contents and
communication and highlight the communication skills that
thus seem to encourage deep learning. In addition, they find
are specific to TT.
that need for communication practice is exposed and that
In [2], Garvey presents a categorization of student student performance is drastically improved with practice.
writing with particular examples of assignments in each
Teaching the main course content is the primary concern
category. The communication assignments that our students
for many teachers and they do neither teach nor comment on
encounter during the first three years are best described by
how the students communicate in their work. Previous
Garvey's categories "Summarizing assignments", "Programs
literature [2] [18] report that LT faculty hesitate to grade
Beginners, first course
Students should be able to
1. identiJY different types of text in the fJeld and describe their structure.
2. write a text that reproduces information from other sources.
1
3. write a text that is suitable for the intended reader.
1
4. write a text that has a clear theme and is appealing to the intended reader.
5. write text that is Iinguistically correct for spelling, paragraphing, punctuation, etc.
6. use references and citations correctly.
7. discuss what information is necessary and what information is sufficient for a text.

First and second year


Students should be able to
I. provide constructive feedback on the work of others with the help of checklists.
2. write summaries of simple scientific articles.
3. describe and evaluate their own work in writing, e.g., lab report. The report should have a good structure.
4. apply principles of necessary and sufficient information in your own texts.

Second and third year


Students should be able to
1. give constructive feedback on the work of others.
2. describe and evaluate larger projects in writing. A special focus is on selection of appropriate levels of abstraction in different
parts of the text.
3. use fJgures and diagrams in a proper manner.
4. produce "well-prepared" text in Swedish.
5. write original text in English.

Figure 4: Progression goals for writing.

writing since they do not have language expertise and since students to reflect on their own performance. We share the
they consider evaluating writing to be a tedious task. experiences presented in [15], that students lack experience
in reflecting on their work. Since reflection does not only
We collaborate with the university's writing center to
advance development of skills, but is also an important tool
offer support for teachers when it comes to making
for achieving lifelong learning if incorporated in professional
instructions for writing assignments and material on how to
practice, we make reflection a mandatory part of selected
write. The writing center also supports the students by giving
assignments spread throughout the education.
instruction lectures and writing aid, e.g., in the form of
comments on student work before the final submission. To encourage progressive development, we have defined
learning outcomes for written communication, presented in
Providing feedback, especially to written work, is a time
Figure 4. The learning outcomes are linked to different
consuming task for teaching staff. We sometimes let senior
course levels. The learning outcomes are designed for
students help with grading to reduce the teacher's workload
students that are native in Swedish, not in English. At
and thus the teacher's task shifts from grading large numbers
Uppsala University, there are four course levels during the
of assignments to supervising a group of students and
first three years of study. At each level, students should
making sure that their grading is at an appropriate level for
fulfill the outcomes from previous levels as weil as the ones
the course. Peer reviewing, students giving feedback to each
from their current level. The fourth level, which does not
other, is also sometimes regarded as being a time saving
occur in Figure 4, is the level of Bachelor thesis work and
alternative which has the additional advantage that students
does not contain any new learning outcomes. A more
learn from reviewing as weIl as from doing the assignment.
detailed description and an analysis of the learning outcomes
Investigations in [19] support our impression that students
in relation to competencies that are needed to fulfill them is
need training and education, both in giving and responding
presented in [20].
to feedback. Since peer reviewing is used frequently,
students get to practice giving feedback. For written At the first level, for beginner students, the focus is on
assignments, students must sometimes respond to feedback high school level writing skills and general academic writing
by improving their work. skills such as proper academic style language and correct use
of references. At later levels, other aspects, e.g., being able to
For oral presentation, [11] report student development
explain and describe solutions at appropriate levels of
when using a combination of practice, reflection and peer
abstraction, are added. A typical example from TT is that to
review. When it comes to writing, our investigations support
explain an algorithm or a program, you need to provide a
the results of [19], that students do not find feedback from
high level description, a figure or a natural language
peers as trustworthy and beneficial as feedback from
description. Just presenting excerpts from code is not
teachers. In our approach, we use peer review both for oral
sufficient at the second and third levels.
and written work but for written work, we make sure that
students also get feedback from teachers or teaching The learning outcomes serve as a structure, both for
assistants. We also make it part of the assignment for teachers and for students, for achieving progression in the
level of assignments, the quality of student work and the Peer reviewing is still used, but with less aid from
grading criteria for assignments. Because of the many checklists as we expect students at this level to have a
similarities between written and oral communication, it is general knowledge of what to look for. Group work and oral
easy to adjust the learning outcomes to suit both kinds of examination is also used, but as the students' subject
communication. To help students appreciate their own knowledge increases, so does the required level of
development, assignment solutions, feedback and reflections correctness in descriptions and of how students can draw
can be used to compile a student portfolio. conc1usions from course contents.

In the later years, students are required to present their


V. IMPLEMENTATTON work to different audiences ranging from novice students to
The communication training starts at the beginners level, professionals depending on the purpose of the different
in the very first course in the TT program and is continued in assignments. An example from the third year is a writing
five more courses spread over the first three years. By the assignment where students are required to explain database
end of the third year, the students show that they fulfill all concepts and give illustrative examples directed towards
communication goals discussed above in an independent audiences not knowing anything about databases. Another
project corresponding to a bachelor thesis. example, from a concurrent programming course in the
second year, is a project proposal where the students have to
In the first course, the writing education focuses on the seil an idea while giving enough technical background to
difference between academic texts and general texts with a convince a professional that their idea is realistic and should
special emphasis on the style used in different types of LT be accepted.
related texts. For example, the students learn the structure of
academic reports and they start to practice explaining LT
VI. DISCUSSION
concepts in a precise and unambiguous manner. Since the
students do not yet have deep subject knowledge, typical We have described a model for professional skills
assignments consist of presenting LT concepts and discussing development and how it has been implemented to develop
them in relation to society and everyday life. The texts are communication skills in LT engineering students at Uppsala
directed towards audiences that are at the same level as the University. Through a student survey, we have found that the
students themselves, audiences that do not have deep isolated efforts that have previously been implemented in the
understanding of TT. An important goal at this level is that program, students have encountered communication practice,
the students learn to use text sources in a proper manner. but that feedback and progression have been sparse. lt is also
c1ear that students have a vague and incomplete picture of
To practice oral communication, the students are required
how communication will be used in their future profession.
to do most of the course work in groups. In addition to being
We argue that an across the curriculum approach is needed
an arena for practicing discussion skills, the groups can serve
to ensure that students encounter a broad variety of
as a motivator for students to perform better and learn more
professional communication activities and thus develops a
and thus the group can have a positive influence on students'
knowledge of what communication in their discipline is and
study habits [21].
how it is used. Such an approach also makes it possible to
The rest of the first year is dedicated to practicing progress the level of communication activities the students
describing and evaluating the students' own work. The are to engage in and how they are graded.
students present their own solutions to programming
Our approach has been successful in that it has engaged
assignments, both orally and in writing. They evaluate their
faculty in participating in developing students'
solutions and draw conclusions e.g., about performance of
communication skills to a much larger extent than
algorithms. They start working on presentation skills by
previously. The model have not been used to a full extent
presenting small projects to the c1ass. An important task for
long enough to present definitive results on how student
students during this period is to provide feedback on the
performance is improved, but the preliminary impression is
work of other students. By doing this, the students get to see
that students are adopting study habits more directed towards
both good and bad examples and how they affect the general
deep learning and that students' oral communication skills
quality of texts and presentations. At this level, peer
are developing.
reviewing is guided by checklists that help students focus on
relevant properties of texts and presentations rather than Groups are natural training grounds for communication.
getting stuck in commenting on details, such as spelling Hence, an interesting future extension of this work is to
errors. inc1ude group and project working skills. A weil functioning
group can have a positive impact on learning that would be
In the second and third years, this work continues but as
interesting to take advantage of in professional skills
student projects get larger, the demand for descriptions at
development.
different levels of abstraction increases. Although the
students have used illustrations earlier, the emphasis on
proper selection and use of illustrations is increased. At this ACKNOWLEDGMENT

level, we also require that students relate their work to other Thanks to Sofia Cassel for collaboration in development
work in the field properly. of the writing skill education. Thanks also to Kar! Marklund
for fruitful discussions concerning oral assessment.
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