In an attempt to provide the engineers of the 21st Century with top-notch professional skills to complement their technical expertise, Virginia Tech, one of ten largest undergraduate engineering programs in the country, has opened an Engineering Communication Center.

In the global marketplace, U.S. engineers need “superior communication and collaboration skills,” according to co-directors Marie Paretti and Lisa McNair, faculty members in Virginia Tech’s Department of Engineering Education.

To better prepare students for the kinds of work environments they’ll face upon graduation, Paretti and McNair “hope to build and deliver focused teaching practices that meet the needs of students and faculty.”

In conjunction with its teaching mission, the center conducts cutting-edge research on communication and collaboration in the engineering workplace. To help develop best practices for industry, their research addresses issues such as teamwork across disciplines, cross-cultural collaboration, and communication in engineering design.

Those practices also become the basis for what happens in the classroom as center faculty bring industry-based research back to the university. Additional research projects on campus focus on how students learn these skills and what teaching strategies best promote student development.

“In each case, we seek to understand what happens in the workplace, what practices facilitate engineering work and what practices hamper it, and what strategies we need to bring back to the classroom to better prepare our students,” Paretti explained.

The center is available to engineering departments to help improve collaboration and communication skills targeted to the needs of contemporary workplace.

Paretti, McNair, and Michael Alley, a senior fellow with the center, offer teaching support, including team teaching and individual lectures on topics in communication and collaboration relevant to engineering students.

They will also provide workshops and lectures on a wide range of topics such as writing proposals, presenting research orally, and collaborating across disciplines.

Paretti, who holds a bachelors degree from Virginia Tech and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, has worked as an engineer, a technical writer, and an educator. Since 2003 she has directed Engineering Communications Programs in Virginia Tech’s Departments of Engineering Science and Mechanics and Materials Science and Engineering.

McNair holds a bachelors degree from the University of Georgia and a doctorate from the University of Chicago. McNair joined Virginia Tech’s Department of Engineering Education in fall of 2005 after serving as an associate director of technical communications at Georgia Tech.

Alley earned a bachelors and a Masters of Fine Arts from Texas Tech. He is the author of three textbooks on technical and scientific communication, and has directed Virginia Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering’s Communications Program since 1999.

The center is housed in the new Department of Engineering Education (EngE) in the College of Engineering. EngE promotes cutting edge research and practice in teaching the next generation of engineers.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 5,500 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 1,800 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology.