Program Helps Engineers Master Technical English

Pilot program offers training on technical English

5 February 2010

Having a successful engineering career in a global economy often means mastering the technical English terms and phrases specific to the field. But for those living in countries where learning English is not required, that can be a challenge. Therefore, IEEE is expanding a pilot program that offers training on technical English to members and students in Regions 8 and 9 where it is not the native language. The IEEE Educational Activities Board is sponsoring the Technical English Program (TEP), which has been offered since 2007 to engineering students in the IEEE Russia Northwest Section.

The idea for the training was proposed by Senior Member Alexander Mikerov, vice chair of the section, as a way to boost membership.

“The concept was based on the experience of engineers from the former Soviet Union, where English was not obligatory in secondary schools and wasn’t taught in the curriculums of technical universities as a mandatory discipline,” Mikerov says. “All technical literature—even IEEE publications—was in Russian. Making international contacts was not encouraged, and English was not useful in engineering practice or everyday life—which led to low IEEE membership in the country.”

“But for today’s engineering students from developing countries to find jobs with international companies, they need to be fluent in technical English,” he continues. “Offering them such training is a powerful way to show the value of IEEE membership.”

Four sessions have been held in the Russia Northwest Section since the pilot began. Training is offered to engineering students who already know some English. The instructors are English language teachers and electrical engineering professors who are IEEE members fluent in technical English. There are three semester-long courses: general English, basic English electrical engineering terms, and an advanced class in a technical field. The teachers speak only English and instruct from English textbooks and IEEE publications. Classes are held at various hotels in St. Petersburg as well as at the St. Petersburg Electrical Technical University, where Mikerov is a professor of control systems.

“The content is similar to what you would encounter in an undergraduate engineering program,” explains Charles Hickman, director of university programs for IEEE Educational Activities, in Piscataway, N.J., the group overseeing the project. “The students have to speak to each other and the instructors in English as well as write in English. It’s this kind of active learning that I believe distinguishes the program from others.”

A daylong session that tests the students’ proficiency with technical English concludes the program. At the most recent TEP, held in October, English-speaking EE professors from throughout Region 8 (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) were invited to the session to help the St. Petersburg students with their assigned projects and to discuss strategies for introducing TEP sessions in other sections. They explored issues such as content, class locations, and funding.

Those discussions have led to a “train the trainer” session, to be held from 26 to 28 March in Abu Dhabi for faculty from schools in the Middle East and North Africa.

Members in Region 9 (Latin America) are exploring ways to develop a model for delivering the instruction online to practicing engineers who are just starting their career.

There are many reasons why IEEE is so well suited to offer this program, Mikerov says. For one thing, IEEE has a vested interest in helping its members and other engineers improve their technical English skills.

“Being fluent in technical English is a prerequisite for participating in IEEE activities,” Mikerov says. “The organization itself must provide the tools for potential members to succeed.”

Hickman adds, “The growth in engineering degree programs worldwide is taking place mostly where English in not the native tongue. Because English is likely to continue to be the shared language of the profession, it is important for this generation to master technical English.”

Otherwise, he says, engineers are at a career disadvantage: “The profession loses if engineers are restricted to only one language and to the geographic areas where it’s spoken.”

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