Helping engineering students make presentations
by Kevin Cleary

Helping engineering students make presentations

I really enjoyed talking with the teachers who came to my JALT presentation. We had a packed room (admittedly, it was not a huge room, but still we had a great turnout) and the energy level was tremendous.

To sum up the presentation, it seems there is only a small number of textbooks available for teachers who have science or engineering students, especially in terms of presentation materials. But you can greatly expand the amount of material that your technical students will enjoy and benefit from by using two simple schemes:

1. Use scientific topics 2. Use ordinary topics in a scientific manner

If you use the schemes as above to generate topics for presentations and supporting language practice then your students will be able to maintain interest and use their natural skills. They will be more comfortable and motivated.


1. Scientific Topics

As far as using scientific topics go, it is understandable to worry if you are a non-technical person. While there were several audience members who had technical degrees, including at least one with a Master’s in science and another with a Ph.D. in engineering, I think that most of us in the room were English teachers first, and we happened to have the opportunity to teach engineering students.

I used the Boeing 787 as our first example. “What product was introduced on this date?” I asked, as July 8, 2007 shone faintly on the screen in yellow letters. The next slide introduced a background picture of the Boeing 787 at its rollout. “Yes, the Boeing 787 — introduced on July 8, 2007.” Then we had a quick game of 787 information exchange. “What is the nickname of the 787?” I asked. “Dreamliner!” was the immediate answer from the back of the room. “What’s special about it?” I continued. “First plane to use composite material extensively!” came the answer from the left side of the room. What is the benefit of composite?” “It’s light!” came the answer from the right side of the room. “Why?” “Because it has carbon fiber and plastic, not metal.” The answers came quickly and accurately, and from many participants. Don’t you wish classes were always like that? I was particularly impressed by the answer to my query about how light composite material was, comparatively speaking: “Composite material weighs only 40% of aluminum” was the quick and precise answer. Not only was it precise number, it was correct!

My point, proven far beyond my hope, was that there are plenty of topics that are comprehensible to English teachers and which resonate with technical students. All of the information that we shared with each other about the Dreamliner was available in the newspaper, and a bit of digging will bring out some more technical information.

If the students can understand the material or find it interesting, then there is often no problem with motivation at all. To illustrate, I asked the audience to imagine the reaction of an ordinary class to a gap-fill exercise on the Dreamliner: “Who is building the wings?” “Who cares?!?” But an engineering student would care.

Next we talked a bit about Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize recipient for physics who was famous for his hilarious and thought-provoking stories. One of his stories concerned how difficult he found his English class was when he was a student at MIT. Our students may be brilliant at science and math, but they often need a of support with English. Thus, we made Presenting Science very low level in terms of language, but rather high in terms of science. For ordinary language, vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar are all kept quite simple, but the content has quite advanced technical vocabulary and is accurate and precise in terms of science. This is not a difficult combination for your students to have. They will have this balance for much of their professional career, as the world of engineering is already globalized with 24-hour production schedules and round-the-world design teams.


2. Use ordinary topics in a scientific manner

The other main area of my advice was to use the scientific method in dealing with ordinary topics. For example, it is common to have a class survey. Why not have the students do it scientifically? They could design the questionnaire with the anticipation of getting data to enter in a spreadsheet; they could make charts and graphs based on the analysis of their data. At presentation time, tbey can speak with some confidence as they know how they designed and carried out the project — it is quite a lot like what they do in the lab.

We used the scientific method throughout Presenting Science, as we know that it matches the way that students think; the scientific method is well ingrained into the students at my university in their first year of studies with all of the laboratory classes they take.

Regarding presentations, I pointed out the Presentation Prep unit in the textbook and gave a few pointers about the use of presentations in the classroom. I feel that an electronic presentation is not at all necessary, but audiences tend to expect one now. But no matter what method is used to get “slides” on a big screen or a wall, it is important that the information be presented in a clear and easy-to-understand manner.



In summary, I advised that teachers of engineering students trust their students and play to their strengths. Give them a scientific topic, or have them treat a topic scientifically. Next, be sure to support your students by giving them a “safe risk” or scaffolding structure. We made Presenting Science with a structured flow so that students see a model presentation, practice the vocabulary and grammar, listen for specific information to fill in gaps on a reading passage that is a presentation script, and finally make some slides on a related topic.

To summarize the Presenting Science method, we take students from being Observers to being Participants to being Creators.

Again, I was really pleased to foster such a dynamic discussion and I hope that this report will help you to help your students improve their presentations.