During in his first year overseeing the Chevron Center for Engineering Education as part of LSU’s Communication Across the Curriculum program, professor David “Boz” Bowles says he encountered a student who was terrified to deliver presentations to an audience. “You hear all the people who say public speaking is a bigger fear than death. I believe it with him,” Bowles says. “He would fidget and sweat and stutter and just have a terrible time.”
The engineering student and his classroom group adopted the Chevron Center studio in Patrick F. Taylor Hall as their new base of operations, honing their presentations and bouncing ideas off Bowles. By the end of the semester, their project was the best of the class and the anxious student significantly improved his presentation skills.
“The ones that adopt it as a home, or at least a regular workplace, tend to show the most improvement in school and go the furthest with it post-graduation,” Bowles said of the studio.
Bowles, who teaches English composition classes in addition to running the engineering studio, says he later received an email from the student saying he had become the go-to person for presentations in his office. “This had been something that had let him move up the chain a little bit,” he said. “I’ve had several students like that over the years.”
The story is a common one coming out of the Chevron Center and CxC, a unique program to develop communication skills in engineering students. The studio also offers students cutting-edge technology to bolster their studies.
Bowles, who has taught writing at four colleges and universities, has an M.F.A. in fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University. At LSU, in addition to his English classes, he has a role in about 65 engineering courses a year. “The main goal that I want the students to have is for them to not see communication as the pain that happens after the engineering, but to make the communications process an integral part of the engineering process,” he said.
We spoke with Bowles about his work with students, the studio and how he spends his time when he’s not on campus.
DO ENGINEERING OR OTHER TECHNICAL STUDENTS ENCOUNTER SPECIAL CHALLENGES WHEN IT COMES TO COMMUNICATION?
The first thing I’ll say about them is the misconception … that engineers don’t communicate well and are not creative or expressive. And that’s crazy. Obviously when you design things that didn’t exist before you designed them, that’s creativity. The element that’s different for engineering versus most majors is the responsibility that comes with the work. As a writer, if I write a bad story, nobody dies. But if you’re an engineer and you design a bad thing, there could be lives and property at stake. So the standards they have to design to, the conventions they have to follow and the rules they have to meet are elements that most of us don’t have to the same degree, or certainly not with the same risk associated. So that colors the way a lot of things are done. It’s not about an aesthetically pleasing document, it’s about an effective document. Efficiency takes precedence over making it pretty or making it sound beautiful. I think a lot of times engineering students can communicate. I think they just have a different goal in mind and a different path to it as a result.
YOUR BACKGROUND IS WRITING AND WRITING INSTRUCTION. HOW DOES THAT HELP YOU TEACH THESE STUDENTS TO BE MORE EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATORS?
It’s not so much that my background is in writing, it’s that I am completely oblivious and dense when it comes to engineering. I have no engineering tendencies or strengths. So the nice thing there is I get to focus almost exclusively on the rhetorical aspects and not get hung up on the technical. In fact, when I was first hired I told (then-Associate Dean) Warren Waggenspack, “I don’t know that I can do this job, I’m not an engineer.” He said, “We have all the technical minds we can use. We need something different.” And that’s me.
THE CHEVRON CENTER FOR ENGINEERING EDUCATION IS FULL OF TECHNICAL AND CREATIVE EQUIPMENT FOR STUDENT USE. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST INTERESTING PIECES IN THE STUDIO?
Oh, the 3D stuff. We have three 3D scanners — one desktop and two handheld scanners. And then we also have a 3D printer. We also have some holographic technology too, but we’re still figuring out how to use that. But what we found with the 3D printer [and scanners] is that having it in an open space meant that student creativity could be a part of how it gets used. Just about every engineering program is going to have 3D printers and 3D scanners, but they’re usually in somebody’s lab where only the grad students and the professor who wrote the grant and maybe a couple of undergraduate workers will see it. And they’re usually going to use it only for whatever that research purpose was. Here it’s in an open space. If you’ve got a need that’s an education purpose, we can do it.
WHAT’S THE MOST REWARDING PART OF WORKING WITH THE STUDENTS?
It’s hard to say what’s most rewarding because just working with students is what I like. There’s an energy. I’m not a young guy anymore so being surrounded by the enthusiasm, the vibe and the energy. The intelligence is what shocks me. I don’t think I was that smart when I was 20. But I think possibly the thing that’s most rewarding is when I do hear back from students once they graduate. When they call back two or three years later and say, “I just got a promotion because of you,” or “the thing you taught me still works to this day,” that really makes the hair on my arms stand up.