For many MIT students, the communication requirement is like a trip to the dentist’s office. We know it’s good for us, and after it’s over we are glad we did it, but no one looks forward to it and it’s painful to endure.
Everyone who has taken a CI (communication intensive) class has heard the story of how the CI requirement was created in response to feedback from alumni, who wish that they had received more practice during their time at the Institute. Indeed, the CI requirement does an excellent job preparing students for all kinds of technical communication they might encounter in their careers beyond MIT.
However, despite its successes, the CI requirement is missing a strong component of communication for the general public and other non-technical audiences.
For example, my CI classes within the Materials Science and Engineering Department have exclusively focused on formal communication for an audience of my peers. I’ve practiced writing technical reports, memos, journal articles, along with poster sessions and presentations. I really feel comfortable with these forms of communication, and I am confident in my ability to effectively communicate my work to academic audiences. In that sense, the CI requirement has been very valuable to me.
But when my fifth-grade cousin asked me about my research, I realized that the CI requirement could do more.
In a time when science is facing greater scrutiny than ever before, effective communication to a non-scientific audience is more important than ever. Every scientist and engineer needs to be able to explain his or her work to the public — whether it’s a middle school class, readers of the New York Times, or members of Congress. The communication requirement needs to change to reflect this new imperative.
MIT already has classes in the writing department that teach science writing for a general audience. These classes are a valuable resource, but only a small fraction of students will take them. This skill is too important to be optional — science writing for the general public ought to be part of the foundation of the communication requirement. But CI classes need to focus on more than writing papers — blog posts, newspaper articles, visual aids, and videos can also be effective.
As the face of science in America, MIT owes it to the scientific community to ensure that all its graduates can communicate the importance of science and engineering to all stakeholders. MIT does an excellent job teaching its students to communicate to an audience of their peers. But when the work of many scientists is portrayed as esoteric or even unnecessary, it is essential that we arm our graduates with the tools to defend the value of their work.