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Engineering Ambassadors: Poised to Change the Way Engineering is Presented

Asha Kirchoff, Christine Littrell, Jenny Ernthaller, and Jenny Amos point to the Illinois banner on the Penn State campus
Asha Kirchhoff, Christine Littrell, Jenny Ehrnthaller, and Jenny Amos point to the Illinois banner on the Penn State campus.

September 18, 2012

"When engineering and STEM educators talk about 'changing the conversation,' it's a huge step forward to even be thinking about communicating science and engineering as a conversation instead of as a boring, one-sided, monotonous lecture where one person is talking, or worse, reading off a slide filled with bulleted lists and long chunks of text." Leslie Srajek

When it comes to learning about engineering through boring presentations that lead to passive listeners, Engineering Ambassadors is trying to change all that. Working to enhance the communication and leadership skills of engineering students who are passionate about what they do, the program—with the potential to fill a much-needed niche along the STEM pipeline—seeks to train and equip engineering undergrads to effectively transmit this passion to middle school and high school students.

According to Leslie Srajek, College of Engineering Academic Advisor, it's all about public perception about engineering in general. "The National Academy of Engineering is changing the conversation message, which is: 'Engineers contribute to the health, happiness, and safety of society.'" She explains that the motivation behind Engineering Ambassadors is to further change the conversation message "so that people, and especially people from underrepresented groups, feel that they have a point of entry into engineering as a profession, so that it's not just white, male, privileged people who can be engineers."

Srajek has known about Engineering Ambassadors since its start as a pilot program in 2009 at Penn State. Engineering communications experts Michael Alley, author of The Craft of Scientific Presentations, and Melissa Marshall, both key developers of Engineering Ambassadors, have a long-standing relationship with Illinois' College of Engineering. Then, coincidentally, I-STEM Associate Director Bob Coverdill learned of the conference and urged Engineering to send a team. So this past August, four students and four advisors from Illinois journeyed to Penn State to attend Engineering Ambassadors' National Workshop. The common denominator? All eight are passionate about Illinois engineering.

Edgar Uribe during his PowerPoint presentation.
Edgar Uribe making his PowerPoint presentation to the group.

The workshop itself was an intensive, three-day training session where students who might never have given presentations before, as well as faculty who might need to brush up on their presentation skills, were taught how to effectively communicate their subject matter—and zeal—to others. The object of the workshop, according to Marie-Christine Brunet, Engineering's Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Programs, was simply: "How do you make a presentation efficient so that people get your message?"Working on presentations about their own engineering interests, students were given instruction, practice, and feedback on the presentation method, known as Assertion Evidence, and then worked into the wee hours refining their presentations, mentored by Engineering Ambassadors from Penn State and three other established Ambassadors programs.

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All four faculty, who attended the faculty sessions, came away claiming that the conference changed the way they intend to teach from now on.

Marie-Christine Brunet was impressed: "I had such a wonderful experience. I took so much more than what I thought I was going to get. This has changed my life…I have been teaching for so many years, and I love teaching, but now, I am thinking,'What did I do?' Because it's just going to change the way I am going to present anything ever again."

Jenny Amos, Bioengineering instructor and advisor, reported that attending the conference "made me look at my life as a teacher and a lecturer very differently, because I communicate for a living, and I thought I was doing a pretty good job at it, and now I realize I have so much to learn…The faculty felt like, 'Wow, we had been doing so much wrong for so long, and now we know how to fix it.'"

Asha Kirchoff, Christine Littrell,Jenny Amos, Jenny Ernthaller, and Marie-Christine Brunet pose by statue of Nitany Lion paw on the Penn State campus.
Asha Kirchhoff, Christine Littrell, Jenny Amos, Jenny Ehrnthaller, and Marie-Christine Brunet pose by the statue of a Nitany Lion paw in between workshop sessions.

Amos found the conference's emphasis on outreach inspiring: "They told stories of the schools they went into and how they did change people's lives and made people think about pursuing engineering or just think about and appreciate engineering as a profession and as a field that you could go into. And that's the goal, right? To get middle schoolers and high schoolers to appreciate it and maybe consider it?"

She also envisioned sending out a diverse team of Illinois students to reach under-represented groups: "If you just see a white male in the classroom, then you think, 'I'm not that person. I can't relate to that person.' But if you see someone who is a female, African American, or Hispanic, and they come and present to you, then you relate better to that person: 'That's a young person who comes from the same background as me, and they're doing it, so I can do it.'"

Jenny Ehrnthaller, Undergraduate Programs Coordinator for the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, raved about the program's benefit for engineering students: "To watch these students present, it's amazing. A majority of them are freshmen and sophomore students, and they give such enthusiastic and relatable presentations on complicated engineering concepts…not only is the program out there to try to build a desire to pursue engineering in younger students, but it's also a way for our ambassadors to develop their own communication skills. It's truly a twofold positive."

Illinois engineering students (left to right): Chuma Kabaghe, Christine Littrell, Edgar Uribe, and Asha Kirchoff
Illinois engineering students who attended the Engineering Ambassadors Workshop (left to right): Chuma Kabaghe, Christine Littrell, Edgar Uribe, and Asha Kirchhoff

The students who attended also agreed that the conference had been extremely beneficial. For example, Mechanical Science and Engineering senior Christine Littrell hosted an impromptu review session each evening so the students would retain what they had learned: "I'm the most forgetful person in the world. So, for me, if you're going to come back to me and say, 'Oh, what'd you learn on that Friday?' I'm going to be like, 'I can't even remember what we did on Friday!' So I always take the opportunity, whenever I go to a conference, to write down what we did during the day, as well as what my key take-aways were. Because at that moment, they're the most rewarding, and the most fresh, and the strongest…If you're going to go to a conference, and if it's that 'life changing,' you want to definitely make note there in the moment of what it meant to you."

One of Littrell's take-aways from the conference was an epiphany regarding why she was drawn to engineering: "I found it interesting that we had an activity where we had to note why we choose engineering, and every single person could recall their choice being a certain person, and we all realized that we could be that person and that change in someone."

Sophomore Bioengineering student Asha Kirchhoff felt the conference bolstered her confidence: "But it was really, really great because they're teaching you: 'This is how you effectively deliver. This is how you should posture yourself.' And those two things, especially, gave me lots of confidence. So the whole take-away for me was that now I feel confident in my ability to go present technical information that people can understand."

What else did Kirchhoff learn? "When you're talking to these kids, make sure you tell them, 'Everyone has a little engineer inside of them; you have a little decision-maker that will design things.' And we're not telling everyone to become an engineer, but we're just trying to bring that little engineer out of some kids. And so they're just telling us to be fun; show how you like it; tell your stories, and hopefully you inspire someone, just as you probably have already been inspired."

nitany lion
Counterclockwise from top left corner: Chuma Kabaghe, Jenny Ehrnthaller, Jenny Amos, Marie-Christine Brunet, and Edgar Uribe pose by Nitany Lion statue.

Kirchhoff also appreciated the relationship-building opportunities: "It was fabulous. Aside from learning all these valuable skills and having a great time, I bonded with the three other students, and even with the advisors, because professors can be scary. It was a wonderful experience."

Excited about beginning an Engineering Ambassadors program here at Illinois, Srajek's goal for the fledgling program is to have the four students who participated replicate what they learned in other students, with 20 trained by the end of the Spring 2013 semester—ready to deploy into P-12 classrooms with the message: "Engineering at Illinois is cool."

Srajek also hopes enthusiasm for this new presentation style is contagious...among faculty: "My ulterior motive for Engineering Ambassadors is when you show students how the message of engineering can be delivered, you raise their expectations for what they want from their professors…for what they want to see in the classroom. And that is what I really want. I want them to create some of the momentum for faculty to shift their teaching style to say, 'There is a different way; there is a better way.'"

Author: Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative
More: Engineering, Undergrad Education Reform, STEM Pipeline, 2012

Photographs courtesy of the eight workshop participants.

Whole group
Group of eight from Illinois who attended the workshop (left to right): Leslie Srajek, Marie-Christine Brunet, Chuma Kabaghe, Jenny Ehrnthaller, Asha Kirchhoff, Christine Littrell, Jenny Amos, Edgar Uribe