Communication, Research, and Analysis for Scientists and Engineers

For almost two decades, Sunny Bains has specialized in teaching critical skills for technical people from undergraduates to professionals: these include research, analysis, visualization, technical argument, technical explanation, writing, presentation, and ethics. She takes a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to all these subjects, starting with basic principles and then moving on to simple, clearly explained rules of practice.

Some of this work is now encapsulated in her book Explaining the Future: How to Research, Analyze, and Report on Emerging Technologies (published by Oxford University Press, February 2019). She is currently developing the website for this book as a hub of information that will help technical people develop skills in all of these areas, complete with check sheets, introductory videos, a blog and other material that she has created and curated over the years.

At UCL, Sunny is available to work on skills modules aimed at both students and professionals (in the spring and summer terms). She currently offers the following lectures and can develop additional material (for instance, on engineering ethics) on request. In addition, she can run peer-marked assignments designed to improve both skills and critical faculties, intensive small-group workshops (usually for professionals, PhD students, or to train markers), and PGTA-marked assessments. Please contact her for further information: sunny.bains {at} ucl.ac.uk.

Research
This class is not about experimental design, it’s really about how you investigate what’s already being done on a question (both in a literature review sense and for more applied work). It focuses on organisation (electronic notebooks, use of reference managers), different kinds of keywords, forward and backward citations, and less-commonly discussed sources like patents, conferences, and the trade press. This is part lecture/part on-the-fly research exercise. Depending on the level of the group, this class can also include basic technical analysis: collecting and using criteria to determine which technology is best for a particular task.

Technical Argument and Audience
Here, the focus is on different types of audience for written/spoken work and the argument structure best suited to persuading these audiences of the merits of a particular technological approach. Specifically, only by starting with a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve, explaining why the status quo (how things are now) is not good enough, outlining the technical problem(s) that need to be overcome, and going through the pros and cons of the competing solutions, can people really appreciate the merits of a new approach.

Basic Writing
For undergraduates and MSc students the first half of this focuses on plagiarism: what it is, how to avoid it, potential penalties. This can be cut down where necessary. The second part is the very basics of report structure: how introductions and conclusions should be written and why, correct use of paragraphs, incorporation of the technical argument structure. This class includes an exercise to show how good structure helps the reader follow what’s going on in a paper (and, conversely, the difficulties that ensue if they don’t).

Advanced Writing and Long Reports
Here we introduce the concept of the executive summary in the context of long reports (and other issues related to these) and look at how to ensure the audience believes in the argument. Seven specific facets of credibility are discussed: evidence, tone, pre-existing objections, argument flow, quality of expression, use of drafts, and professionalism. We also consider specific issues surrounding large-report structure. Note that this class can be combined with the Basic Writing class where plagiarism is not an issue.

Visualisation/Presentations
This first part covers the basics of presenting data and gives seven key attributes of a good visualisation. We spend most of the time looking at a set of images, discussing how the rules apply to these, and how they can be improved. The second part goes through the basics of a good presentation, reminding the students about things they learned in the technical argument lecture, but then going into detail on specifics like slides, performance, and the particular structure that presentations need (particularly the introduction/outline conclusion/summary pairing and where things can go wrong here).

Criticism Workshops
For those who have already learned the basics of report writing and/or given presentations listed above, workshops can be an extremely useful way of testing and improving both critical and practical skills. Participants read (or watch) and criticize each others’ work based on the specific criteria taught in the classes.