Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue
Sarah Mobley and Jenny Retherford

Innovative Class Helps Enhance Communication Skills

Many engineering students aren’t sure why they would need to learn communication skills when they first enroll in college. They are not always aware how much writing and speaking will be needed throughout a future career.

It’s one reason, CE 205, an innovative professional development course, is required for sophomores in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Lecturer Sarah Mobley and Distinguished Lecturer Jenny Retherford are team teaching the course, which combines communications and history.

Ease Into Communication

“There’s a lot of convincing at the start,” Retherford said. “That’s why I don’t mind the name professional development for this class. It’s a real development growth for [the students] to realize that you are going to learn all this math and all this engineering, but in the end, all that math and engineering has to get communicated to someone.”

Mobley and Retherford used to teach the course separately. But given the increase in student enrollment in TCE, they paired together to ensure the students receive the proper amount of attention required to help enhance their written and oral communication skills.

Through the class, students are introduced to civil and environmental engineering specialties, history, and achievements. They learn professional responsibility, communication, and organization. Each student receives a book with 18 principles in writing that help them craft papers and presentations.

“They will just come up and say, ‘I don’t write. I can’t write. I hate to write.’ So, convincing them they can improve these skills if they follow the process is essential,” Mobley said. “I think they start to find some joy in writing once they crack the code.”

Breaking Down the Class Structure

CE 205 is held twice a week. The first class is a traditional class with a lecture and note taking. The second class is a workday with small group sessions tied to a graded assignment. The workday sessions feature half the class with two teachers and two teaching assistants to improve the faculty-to-student ratio.

“Rather than lecturing the entire time, we want to help them work through their problems. The students really want to see it evolving into something that they are going to be graded for,” Retherford said. “I think that improves class engagement because our students absorb it better and react in different ways to help them process the information.”

Creation of the Writing Center

Mobley and Retherford have also created a writing center in the John D. Tickle Engineering Building with an engineering focus that is staffed by department members. CE students are invited to get guidance on any of their writing projects.

CE 205 was designed with vertical integration in mind. Mobley and Retherford want students to recall the principles they learned as they move through grade levels. They can use them while writing lab reports or doing senior design projects.

“We’ve being trying to promote the idea that you can create a system so that any time you are asked to write, you can call upon that system,” Retherford said. “That really speaks to them. They like procedures. They like to know you do this first, this second. They like that kind of thinking.”

The impact of effective communication in a future career was relayed to students by a recent guest speaker, who told them “Engineers who communicate best are sued the least.”

“There is real important value,” Retherford said. “It’s not just that it’s good or it’s nice, but there can be some real consequences professionally, both to do this well and to not do this well.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment Mobley and Retherford receive is when students tell them at end of the class or once they graduate, “I didn’t really believe you, but you were right,” Retherford said. “I didn’t always love writing, but I have really learned to appreciate writing.”


Rhiannon Potkey (865-974-0683,