Professor helps students conquer their fear of public speaking

Beyond explaining numbers and calculations, engineers are now expected to make formal oral presentations, run meetings and quickly pitch ideas to clients or colleagues. Many engineering students lack the communication skills they will need to succeed professionally and Julie Sharp, professor of the practice of technical communications, is working to fix that.

Julie Sharp

The School of Engineering’s technical communication course was designed by Sharp and places an emphasis on writing and editing reports, preparing and using visual aids and includes three major oral presentations. For more than 20 years she has developed and instructed the technical communication portion of two combined engineering lab/technical communication courses (ChBE 228w and ChBE 229w), forging two of the first such integrated communication/engineering courses offered in the United States.

Currently, she is creating an inaugural engineering professional development course for undergraduates, ES 290, to help students hone communication skills and strategies for initiating a career.

In the December 2012 issue of PRISM magazine, published by the American Society for Engineering Education, Sharp said that to add verisimilitude to her class, she recruited a cadre of Vanderbilt engineering alumni to conduct mock interviews. “It’s great practice,” she told PRISM, “and it also lets students start to build up a [career] network.”

Sharp was recently recognized for her contributions to engineering education. She received a 2012 Apex Award for excellence in the category of education and training writing from Communication Concepts, Inc., which publishes Writer’s Web Watch,, and the Writing That Works Archives. Her winning entry was a 2012 proceedings article submitted to ASEE titled “Behavioral Interview Training in Engineering Classes.”

Sharp also instructs a technical communication course for all engineering majors, ES 210w, serving as the course coordinator.

“Studies have shown people fear death less than they fear public speaking,” Sharp said. To help ease those anxieties, she treats her class as one big, supportive family. Ahead of the first oral presentation, for example, students can practice in groups, where they tend to give helpful suggestions. In-class critiques always accentuate the positive and everyone gets a round of applause. “No one is put on the spot in front of the class,” said Sharp, who later gives students more candid and critical appraisals, one-on-one.

According to PRISM, instructors find even their most reluctant or grudging public speakers come to understand the professional need for good oral presentation skills. “Engineers tend to be very pragmatic,” said Sharp. In fact, she adds, “I’ve been told by students that this was the most practical course they’ve had at Vanderbilt, and the most valuable.”