Turning engineers into well-rounded communicators

A still from the “Comm Lab Voices” video where clients share their stories for the MIT Communication Lab’s 10th Anniversary. Top row from left: Kirby Heck, PhD Candidate, MIT Civil and Environmental Engineering; Jasmina Burek, MIT Postdoctoral Associate ’19-21. Bottom row: Victoria Yang, MIT ChemE BSE’23; Jordan Alford, MIT ChemE BSE’20.

The MIT School of Engineering’s Communication Lab provides peer coaching and other services to students and postdocs seeking to improve their communication skills.

Zach Winn | MIT News

October 27, 2023

For MIT engineering students and postdocs, tasks like writing grant proposals, applying to jobs, and presenting research findings require not only technical expertise but also the ability to clearly communicate.

For the last 10 years, the MIT School of Engineering’s Communication Lab has helped students and postdocs develop those communication skills. Using principles like understanding your audience, identifying your purpose, and presenting a single, overarching theme, the lab’s students have advanced their academic and professional careers.

“Learning communications ideas in the abstract can be difficult for engineering and science students, who are communicating very specific types of information and stories to diverse audiences,” says Communication Lab Director Diana Chien PhD ’16. “What makes it stick for them is learning about communication in the context of a particular discipline — for example, how should I portray data about a specific engineering experiment I ran for an audience of peers in my field?”

The lab, known as the Comm Lab to most students, works through a peer-to-peer coaching model in which student and postdoc Communication Fellows host one-on-one sessions to help their peers through specific communications tasks.

“We really believe in empowering trainees to be part of the educational experience,” Chien says. “We heavily invest in training the graduate students and postdocs who work with us, because the Communication Fellows really drive our impact.”

The Communication Lab currently has 85 fellows that have worked with thousands of undergraduate, graduate, and postdocs since the program’s founding. In addition to training students, the Comm Lab also hosts workshops, publishes online articles, and offers other resources to help trainees with their written, oral, and visual communication.

“I always wanted to be that person that could bridge the gap between deep technical engineering innovation and the commercial side,” Jordan Alford ’20 said at the Comm Lab’s recent 10th anniversary celebration. “The Comm Lab has really helped me become the type of engineer that can communicate what’s going on effectively so that everyone can understand me, no matter their background.”

Meeting students where they are

Elise Strobach SM ’17, PhD ’20 was part of the first cohort of mechanical engineering Communication Fellows when the Lab expanded in 2017.

“The Comm Lab helped me build up skills around talking to diverse audiences about my research,” she says. “One of the big things they teach you right away is as a Communication Fellow is that you’re not there to teach somebody how to do a thing. You’re there to mentor them so they can do it for themselves.”

Often students come to the Communication Lab seeking help for a specific assignment, like giving a presentation at a conference. Coaching sessions will then address the assignment, but in the context of broader communications principles. In this way the Lab aligns its coaching with student deadlines to meet them where they need help most immediately.

“It’s about finding opportunities to inject educational principles into a project that somebody is already working on,” Chien says. “We use the urgency behind students’ needs to provide educational support.”

The Communication Lab’s workshops are organized around specific tasks, like writing research papers and applying to jobs. In one recent workshop, the lab helped trainees apply for faculty positions, which can be a confusing process.

“We try to demystify some of these academic processes that are very closed-door,” Chien says. “We also help people a ton with field-specific applications in general.”

The coaches also benefit from the sessions.

“As a PhD candidate, you’re doing experiments all the time, and it can be difficult to feel like you’re making progress,” says Chien, who also served a fellow while at MIT. “Getting positive feedback can be transformative for coaches to see themselves as having an impact.”

Strobach took the presentations she developed in the Comm Lab and used them as part of a speaker series her lab group hosts. From then on, when certain members of her lab were preparing to present at a conference or other event, they’d meet with Strobach beforehand.

“When I think about my experiences leading teams, a lot of those Comm Lab experiences were building blocks for me,” says Strobach, who founded the company AeroShield while participating in the Comm Lab program. “I don’t think I would’ve had the confidence to do that before Comm Lab.”

Chien says Strobach’s experience is common.

“We find that communication as a skill can be a gateway for students seeking out leadership experiences,” Chien says. “Communication can improve your confidence and put you in leadership positions. Many fellows aren’t necessarily approaching the fellowship as a leadership opportunity, but it ends up becoming one.”

The online materials the Communication Lab puts out have provided another way to support students. One of the Lab’s most popular resources are communications kits (“CommKits”) tailored to different engineering disciplines. To date, the CommKits have been viewed more than a million times by people from all over the world.

Some of those people turned out not to be students but communications professionals at other schools. A few years ago, the lab started getting contacted by people trying to start similar programs at their universities. In response, the Communication Lab Summer Institute was launched, which provides students and professionals from any institution with a four-day workshop to help them launch science communication training initiatives.

Setting students up for success

By connecting students and postdocs for one-on-one sessions, the Comm Lab also gives participants an outlet to seek help.

“The peer-to-peer format encourages experience sharing,” Strobach says. “It makes it less about micromanaging and just telling someone what to do, and more about seeing where someone’s struggling and showing them something about my prior experience where I’ve struggled and how the Comm Lab has taught me to address those struggles.”

Students also said the Comm Lab helped them with feelings of imposter syndrome and provided a welcoming atmosphere for learning new skills.

“There was a sense of psychological safety there,” Strobach says of the Lab. “As I was trained to become a fellow, it felt very natural. I really valued that, especially being a female in mechanical engineering. It made my time at MIT more impactful, and set me up for the next step in my career.”

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