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Top>Education>Presentations and documentation by science and engineering students


Hiroko Shoji

Hiroko Shoji [profile]

Presentations and documentation by science and engineering students

Hiroko Shoji
Professor of Intelligence Science and Technology, Affective Engineering, and Human-Computer Interaction,
Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University

1. The importance of presentation skill

In recent years, great emphasis has come to be placed on presentation skill. Of course, presentation skill has always been regarded as important. In the past, presentation know-how was something which a person acquired by himself or herself, or which was learned from older students in the same laboratory. Indeed, I have no recollection of taking any classes on presentations. Currently, many departments in the Faculty of Science and Engineering where I teach offer subjects for science and engineering students to study presentations. The establishment of such classes and exercises as prerequisite subjects is a relatively recent development. It can be said that the creation of such subjects reflects the emphasis on presentation skill in society.

I am positioned in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and I teach a subject entitled Technical Presentation for 2nd-year students (a course exists for each class, so 4 instructors handle 1 class). Although the subject's title contains the term presentation, it does not refer to presentations simply in the sense of speaking in front of people. Instead, science and engineering students study the entire process from creating reports by summarizing results and knowledge obtained by conducting experiments/surveys to giving presentations. The subject sets a broad definition of presentation, one that includes all aspects of conveying the results of one's research to other people by giving form to the results, including documentation (the creation of reports).

2. Current state of presentation skill and documentation skill

So, are these kinds of actions to cultivate technical presentation ability effective? Based on my several years of experience of teaching such classes and my observations of students conducting their graduate research in our laboratory, my honest answer to the question is half yes and half no. Compared to when I was a student, I feel that the presentation skill of students has improved in terms of using material such as PowerPoint slides and giving a spoken explanation (a narrow definition of presentation). Until entering university, Japanese students don't have many opportunities to give presentations in front of people, and it has been said that students have poor presentation skills. Although this trend still continues today, there is much broader recognition for the importance of presentations when compared to a short time ago, and there are increasing opportunities for students to give presentations. As stated previously, universities are establishing more courses and subjects for studying presentation skills. Also, within school education until high school, there are opportunities for creating presentation material and giving presentations within general subjects and subjects on information. It is natural for presentation skill to improve if presentation know-how is taught and presentation opportunities increase. Thanks to the benefits of information society, a wide range of tools such as PowerPoint are available for creating presentation material. It is easier to create impressive-looking material (at least, much better than in the past). It can be said that the advancement of information society is one reason students’ presentations appear more professional in recent years.

On the other hand, I feel that documentation skill for creating reports is decreasing, almost as if in inverse proportion to presentation skill. By no means has documentation skill become unnecessary, and opportunities for writing reports and theses have not decreased. Instead, in addition to universities, there is an increase in documentation opportunities at high schools and junior high schools, with more importance being placed on short essays and reports rather than standardized academic examinations. So, why is documentation skill decreasing? Some people say that it is because today's youth are less literate and read fewer books. Truely, that is probably one reason. However, documentation skill is not something that can be acquired by simply reading a great amount.

3. Clarify what you want to say

By reading many reports and theses created by students, I have realized that the decline in documentation skill is mainly composed of 3 sub-problems. The first problem is that the overall writing lacks a clear theme, or clear statement of what students want to say. Science and engineering students are expected to create reports and theses which explain to the reader the findings and results of research and surveys. It is necessary to make the reader understand how meaningful and wonderful the acquired knowledge is. If the writer does not make a clear point, the reader will be left with an overall sense of confusion, even if it is possible to understand the writing itself. The first step is for the writer to focus on clarifying what he or she wants to say. However, when reading the writing of students, I often feel that the writers themselves don’t understand what they want to say. Sometimes, the title of a thesis doesn’t match the contents. This indicates that the writers don’t understand what they want to say. In many cases, the writers simply write what they have done. They don’t understand that what they have done is equivalent to what they want to say. A writer should want to speak about results or important discoveries as a result of what they have done. Reports and theses are different from essays and letters. Instead of simply writing thoughts as they occur, I hope that students will focus on first clarifying what they want to say and then establishing a framework.

4. Compose your writing logically

The second problem is that students are not skilled at logically composing their writing. The logic of reports and theses for science and engineering must be composed in accordance with the overall theme (such necessity is not limited to science and engineering alone). Failure to achieve such a composition will result in incoherent writing with inconsistency between the beginning and the end. In such cases, even if the writers have clarified what they want to say, the reader will be left with an overall sense of confusion. Of course, a logical composition is important for writing documentation and giving presentations. However, slides such as PowerPoint are heavily used in presentations, with each one of the slides existing as an independent document. If the presenter moves to the next slide like in a picture-card show, any logical contradictions with the previous content is relatively inconspicuous. Compared to reports and other writings, it is easier to disguise the lack of a logical composition. In my opinion, the spread of document creation using PowerPoint is one factor that interferes with the cultivation of logical composition skill. Moreover, it is common for reports to be written through copying and pasting based on information found on the web. This also leads to a decrease in logical composition skills. When I was a student, it was common to write reports while copying reference literature. However, this process consisted of reading a book, comprehending the contents and recomposing the contents to match the point of one’s report. Copying and pasting consists of copying blocks of writing in large units. By using a word processor to write a report while copying and pasting, it is possible to complete a report (at least in form) by simply copying and without reading all the material. Once a person get used to writing in a copy-paste style, it’s only natural that they lose focus of the logical composition. As stated above, although PowerPoint and the copy-paste method are useful tools for both presentation and the creation of documents, they may also contribute to decreasing logical composition skill. This could be described as the merits and demerits of information technology. When considering logical composition, it would be good practice to work without using a computer.

5. Develop writing ability through lots of reading and writing

The final problem is the lack of writing ability itself. As said in the news, this problem can be attributed to the fact that young people read fewer books. Today is an age of overflowing information in which it is necessary to quickly view and process a vast amount of information. For this reason, people tend to avoid the trouble of reading and writing properly. Quickly written material may be sufficient for having a reader understand something simple. In the case of something unimportant, it is not a problem even if misunderstanding were to exist. However, it is a great waste to quickly write a report or thesis which should contain important knowledge. I’m not saying that you must write skillful sentences like a novel. It is sufficient if content is properly stated and the reader can obtain a clear understanding without any ambiguity. You may write while imitating a well-written thesis. When I read a thesis written in English, I keep notes on skillful expressions for use as reference during my own writing. In the case of writing in Japanese as well, simply continuing to make small efforts will result in great improvements after many years have passed.

6. Writing is only valuable if understanding is obtained

For many years, presentation and documentation skill in science and engineering has tended to be disregarded when compared to the humanities. Many people involved in science and engineering dislike Japanese language subjects. More than anything, there are many engineers who strongly feel that results will be obvious if they create an outstanding item. Such engineers believe that people will understand their work even without explanation. However, this way of thinking no longer holds true. No matter how outstanding the technology or product may be, the recipient will not recognize that value without an understanding of value. An even higher level of presentation and documentation skill will be expected from science and engineer professionals in the future. In addition to presentation skills, I hope that students will also focus on acquiring writing skills. Many people in the field of science and engineering have trouble writing, so it will definitely be a major advantage if you can become a skilled writer.

Hiroko Shoji
Professor of Intelligence Science and Technology, Affective Engineering, and Human-Computer Interaction,
Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Born in Fukuoka Prefecture. In 1989, graduated from the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering, The University of Tokyo. In 1991, completed the Master’s Program in industrial mechanical engineering in the Graduate School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo. In 2002, completed the Doctoral Program in advanced interdisciplinary studies in the Graduate School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo. Holds a PhD in engineering. In 2004, appointed as Assistant Professor and then as Associate Professor in the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University. Appointed as Professor in 2011. In her research, analyzes and creates models for the thought process of human beings in order to realize information presentation and interaction which match the thought characteristics and sensitivity of human beings.