Interdisciplinary partnerships across campus

“Genius is the ability to put into effect what is on your mind.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

By Anita Vila-Parrish,, and Sarah Egan Warren

As educators we scrutinize our slides, in-class examples and pedagogical approaches in the classroom to ensure that students will be able to apply this knowledge as practitioners of OR/MS. We hope that they leave each session “sold” that what we are teaching is exciting and relevant in the world today. While we assess students’ mastery of our subjects through homework assignments, exams and projects, what is often lacking is the assessment of the students’ ability to verbally articulate their analysis, gain consensus and sell their recommendations.

As professionals with many years of experience, we all know that if you cannot communicate your ideas effectively your career potential and impact will be limited. But do we give our students a chance to develop these skills in our technical courses? Do we outsource this training to faculty in other disciplines and hope that students transfer this learning to the workplace? Can we integrate communication into our courses in a way that yields the most benefit and improves learning transfer?

Four and a half years ago Dr. Anita Vila-Parrish began teaching the senior design (capstone) course in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University. Having spent time working for a major high-tech firm, she had an appreciation for presenting to executives, crafting the perfect PowerPoint slide deck (with 100 backup slides just in case), and articulating the inventory complexities that would come with offering yet another keyboard. Anita knew that she had to prepare students to confidently do the same, and that senior design seemed to provide the perfect platform to assess workplace communication readiness.

However, how to exactly operationalize this assessment was unclear. Cue Sarah Egan Warren, assistant director of the Professional Writing Program at N.C. State. Sarah has been teaching the Technical Communications for Engineers course (a requirement for all ISE students) for 16 years. An interdisciplinary grant opportunity brought Sarah and Anita together to develop modules in each other’s courses to increase the learning transfer of communication skills in engineering contexts. A natural starting point for their work was Anita’s capstone design course.

Perfect Stage for Communication Integration

A project-based course is the perfect stage for communication integration. First, a typical industry-sponsored project will provide complexities that are challenging to analyze and explain. Second, a project often has both internal and external stakeholders, thus broadening the typical audience. We decided to weave both content and presentation opportunities throughout the semester. We agreed to two lectures focused on communication.

The first is focused on “knowing your audience” and “the power of three” strategies for presenting. A few weeks after this lecture the students present their project proposal and they receive detailed feedback from Sarah on their presentation performance – leaving Anita to focus on their technical content. Sarah then returns to discuss visuals – from slide design to displaying complex analysis. Students are given two additional presentation opportunities and similar detailed feedback at their final presentation (side-by-side with their feedback from the first presentation). The results have been amazing. Our external industry reviewers and faculty have commented on the drastic improvement of our student teams’ presentation skills.

Lessons Learned

After two and a half years of this collaboration we reflected on the lessons we have learned from this partnership.

1. Collaboration with interdisciplinary faculty benefits the instructors.

Yes, collaboration can involve significant work and planning with a colleague across departments or colleges, but the outcomes are worthwhile, and both instructors made positive adjustments to their classes because of the collaboration experience. Sarah reworked a progress report assignment in her professional writing class into a status report based on the status reports required for senior design and in typical workplaces. In addition, a recorded lecture by Anita is now used to support the importance of soft skills in engineering disciplines. The industrial engineering professor adapted her presentation rubric based on feedback from the professional writing instructor.

2. Collaboration with interdisciplinary faculty benefits the students.

Students responded positively to the just-in-time learning and the resources from outside experts. Validation from a source in the students’ engineering discipline reinforcing ideas presented in professional writing was helpful in emphasizing the importance of communication. Focusing on more than just technical content – such as how do we measure things in presentations and what makes a good presentation – helped students discover specific strategies for improving their senior design presentations. The external industry evaluations at the final presentations have significantly improved.

3. Learning transfer is complicated and lacks an easy solution, but more interdisciplinary collaboration may be a way to help students with learning transfer.

Making clear connections for students between content learned in one class or discipline and how those skills can be used in another class (or future workplace) could be one strategy in the push for learning transfer. A selection of student comments below show how the students are starting to make connections:

• “The presentation brought up many of the points that we had already discussed in class and helped to give great real-world examples.”

• “Watching the presentation brought me to realize just how important communication is for engineers.”

• “We are currently studying in (class) that communication and your audience is so important in the work place environment. Audience and communication is further hit home on the global engineering scale.”

• “Using persuasive speech is important in helping getting people “on board” with your ideas and thoughts.”

• “It’s very important to be a confident speaker with enthusiasm because if you are not confident in yourself, no one else will be. Enthusiasm brings the audience in and makes the audience actually listen.”

Interdisciplinary partnerships are not only needed in research but also in teaching. In order to increase learning, transfer subject matter experts from both disciplines must cross-pollinate each other’s courses. Universities can provide incentives such as N.C. State’s Interdisciplinary Liaisons grant to support faculty in the start-up effort required in these endeavors. From both of our perspectives I know that we could never go back to teaching our courses without the impact made on the students as a result of these efforts.

Anita Vila-Parrish ( is the director of Undergraduate Programs and a teaching assistant professor in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University.

Sarah Egan Warren ( is the assistant director of the Professional Writing Program and senior lecturer at North Carolina State University.