Engineering the Future of STEM Communicators

A poised young woman approaches a podium and begins to discuss her childhood. “The characters I admired most in TV shows always interfaced with computers – they were usually the smartest and most useful.” She then philosophizes, “I always felt this need of wanting to help.” With all eyes at attention, she continues, “It looked like computers were the strongest tool to use to help people.”

photo of cal state fullerton student engineering ambassadors

The inaugural class of CSUF Engineering Ambassadors, led by ECS Interim Associate Dean Sang June Oh, includes 14 juniors studying civil engineering, computer engineering, computer science, and mechanical engineering.

Maria Diaz, a junior majoring in computer science, has just turned what could have been a dull presentation into an engaging conversation. As a member of the inaugural class of Cal State Fullerton’s Engineering Ambassadors Network, Diaz’s job is to promote STEM careers to potential ECS majors and the community.

Before becoming an Ambassador, Diaz would have been terrified to speak publicly. She would have relied heavily on a script, written on her PowerPoint. However, up until this point in her presentation, Diaz hasn’t shown a single slide. She instead relies on her story to get her audience excited about a career in computer science.

Diaz’s future plans include using machine learning to combat sex trafficking. She knows part of her job will entail communicating to groups who don’t understand computer science. Therefore, the skills she’s learning are critical. She says, “I know more about what the ingredients are for an effective presentation.”

The Ambassador Pioneers

The Engineering Ambassador Network was founded in 2009 by Penn State University Professors Michael Alley and Karen Thole. The program aspired to improve the communication skills of young engineers. Alley knew that part of STEM careers involved giving presentations. Thole had an added desire to encourage more women to pursue engineering careers. Both knew that K–12 kids would benefit from hearing relatable stories told by college students. The program has the potential to not only inspire the next generation of STEM majors, but also to boost the marketable skills of current students. It’s not surprising that it caught on quickly. To date, more than 30 universities across the nation and around the world are part of the Engineering Ambassador Network.

Enter the CSUF Ambassadors

ECS Interim Associate Dean Sang June Oh learned of the Engineering Ambassador Network through Caecilia Gotama (MS ’86), a donor and member of the ECS College Leadership Council. The two attended a training session at the University of Nebraska in the fall of 2017. There, they watched a new crop of Husker Ambassadors learn presentation skills.

“I understand now that a single presentation has the ability to move an audience, even for just a moment.”

Jazmin Martinez | ECS Engineering Ambassador

“The whole concept of how to improve an engineering talk is simple,” explains Oh. “Don’t use bullet points in slides. Lines of text cause audiences to read instead of listen.” Instead, Ambassadors learned to engage with stories, large images, and no more than two lines of text per slide.

That means Ambassadors must actually engage audiences with personal stories. Laughing at this point, Oh says, “Many engineers are quite shy, but have the potential, with training, to be very engaging presenters.”

In December 2018, Oh, Gotama, and program coordinator Christina Hernandez set out to identify and train Cal State Fullerton’s first Engineering Ambassadors. They chose 14 students out of 60 applicants, based on criteria they gleaned from the Penn State program.

All Ambassadors had to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA and be able to commit to Wednesday night training meetings. The advisory team actively sought those underrepresented in engineering fields. Oh explains, “Only 18% of ECS students are female and 34.8% are Hispanic. The Ambassadors will help attract more of those students.”

A New Year for the Engineering Ambassadors

Training began in January with a special guest – Penn State’s EAN founder Michael Alley. During the first weekend bootcamp and through subsequent sessions, students worked to perfect 15- to 20-minute presentations entitled, “What’s So Good About My Major.” With each practice round, Ambassadors improved their eye contact, timing, and ability to connect with audiences. In April, the Ambassadors presented at the annual Welcome to CSUF Day. At each session, 30 to 60 admitted freshmen, transfer students, and parents watched as the teams of Ambassadors conveyed their passion for civil engineering, computer engineering, computer science, and mechanical engineering.

Junior computer science major Katherine Torres says the Ambassador program has made a difference. “I actually prefer relying on what I know to just reading off the slides,” she says. “It forces me to be more confident in myself, and I am better off because of it.” Junior Kyle Kulpa adds, “When you do enough research on a subject, it makes it a LOT easier to talk about on stage.”

Headshot of associate professor Sang June Oh
Sang June Oh, Ph.D. | Associate Professor

Oh is proud of their efforts, saying, “Students feel part of an elite group because they’re inspiring the next generation of engineers.” Junior Jazmin Martinez agrees, “I understand now that a single presentation has the ability to move an audience, even for just a moment.” As the Ambassador program continues to thrive, the advisory team is looking outside CSUF for support. Schools and civic organizations can book an Ambassador for a presentation.

Corporate sponsorship opportunities are available and come with unique benefits. Oh notes, “Industries that partner with the Engineering Ambassador program will have the chance to engage with these high-achieving students.”

As it’s uncommon for college graduates to come to jobs already able to create and deliver engaging presentations, the Engineering Ambassador program gives a real advantage in the job market, increasing career readiness and attractiveness to potential employers. Oh says, “Hiring an Ambassador would add value to any organization.”

Learn More about ECS Engineering Ambassadors

For more information about the ECS Engineering Ambassadors, contact Sang June Oh.

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