August 2011

Ninety percent of the job is half communication

It's time to reinvent the liberal arts curriculum to more effectively integrate it with STEM and other majors.  

With apologies to Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra, the Hall of Fame ballplayer, will live on in our society's collective consciousness in large measure because of his talent for summarizing universal truths in an eccentrically memorable form.

Many of you reading this may be too far removed from the glory days of the 1950s Yankee dynasty anchored by Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Whitey Ford, Moose Skowron and the incomparable Yogi Berra to recognize the source of my somewhat dysfunctional title. While Yogi's accomplishments as a ballplayer, coach and manager led to his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, among the general public he was, and is, more often remembered for his unique ability to turn a phrase. "Ninety percent of this game is half mental" is one of the most iconic of Yogi's impressive collection of malapropisms. It also is a fitting example of the power of (in)effective communication, a power so great that it can overshadow or even supplant the impression others have of a person's accomplishments and skills within his or her discipline. Hence, Berra will live on in our society's collective consciousness in large measure because of his talent for summarizing universal truths in eccentrically memorable forms.

Communication skills: in demand, yet on the decline

Once upon a time, every job ad in Science, Nature and other major science, technology, engineering and mathematics trade publications concluded with a line describing the specific computer software with which a successful applicant was to be familiar. Strong discipline-specific skills and experience, while highly desired, weren't necessarily sufficient to trump a lack of computer skills. Today, in want ads, proficiency with computers largely has been supplanted by written and verbal communication skills. While this evolution in part reflects a rise in computer proficiency and continuing improvements in both hardware and software, it also reflects a decline in a fundamental skill that can trace its ancestry to one of the original three R's. Ironically, this comes at a time when virtually anyone with Internet access can play the role of commentator, news reporter or movie producer on a global stage.

The reasons for this decline in the basic ability to say what one means in an era characterized by global communication are many. Sound bites, Twitter, cable TV, crowded classrooms and latchkey parenting all have contributed. As a consequence, employers cite lack of communication skills as the No. 1 problem with employees and one of the top five reasons why an interview fails to produce a job offer for a candidate. Yet many college students continue to map out plans of study that assiduously avoid any elective courses rumored to involve essays, reports or any other form of substantive writing. One of our first priorities in addressing this issue must be to change student attitudes. We must somehow dispel the myth that grammar, syntax, spelling and vocabulary are concepts peculiar to the ivory tower of academics, concepts that will melt away once students traverse the looking glass into the real – and more reasonable – world.

A fundamental element of both science and business

As teachers, we need to do a better job of illustrating that record keeping and information dissemination are integral to the scientific process. I like to tell my students that if something is not recorded, for all practical purposes, it did not occur. We must emphasize the role of proper communication between co-workers in maintaining a safe working environment. Most importantly, we need to bring our students face to face with the real world. Contact a local biotech or pharma firm and ask whether it would be willing to host a fieldtrip or to come to campus and have employees speak to students about the expectations for scientists working under the requirements of Good Laboratory Practices, vertebrate animal protocols, U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations and so on. Then students will encounter in clear and dramatic form the careful, constant and rigorous record keeping requirements typical of the working world.

Finally, how we instruct and assess students can influence their behavior. One of the greatest deficits I have noticed among aspiring biochemists and molecular biologists is their limited vocabularies. I often wonder if some of the more bizarre answers that appear on my quizzes and test papers reflect a desperate attempt to find some dimly recalled "right" word. Despite large course loads and class sizes, we can make an impact if we consistently give assignments and tests that require, if not a full-blown essay, the synthesis of a list, phrase or couple of sentences without multiple choice cues. In grading these answers, it is equally important that we apply standards that recognize and reward those students able to synthesize clear and cogent answers that display depth of vocabulary. Too often, we simply give credit if the student writes down a particular word without any consideration of context. If simply mentioning the right word is sufficient regardless of the appropriateness or accuracy of the remainder of their answer, students adapt by putting down as many words as possible rather than choosing the most appropriate one. If they can receive full points because we can see what they were trying to say, what incentive do students have to improve?

Reinvigorating the liberal arts curriculum

"Communication skills" is a deceptively simple phrase encompassing a veritable hydra-headed array of activities: oral and written, personal and electronic, technical and popular, listening and speaking. Providing students with opportunities to amass a serviceable set of communication skills lies beyond the capacity of an individual STEM department. It requires a coordinated effort by the entire educational system. Ironically, the original goal of the North American higher education system was to produce Renaissance men, and eventually women, who – while well versed in a specific subject area – possessed a common foundation in logic, deductive and inductive reasoning, history, communication and quantization. The liberal arts curriculum was meant to provide a means to equip students from all majors to engage in lifelong learning.

What went wrong?

  • • a slow erosion in the emphasis placed on the liberal education curriculum in the face of the explosion in our knowledge of STEM areas
  • • the substitution of getting a job instead of learning as the primary goal of higher education
  • • the depersonalization of higher education with a concomitant increase in school enrollment and class sizes 

For more information

• Ainsworth, S. J. (2010) Skills for Success. Chem. Eng. News 88, 65 – 67.
Biochemistry/Molecular Biology and Liberal Education: A Report to the Teagle Foundation. American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (2008).  
• Morrissey, S. R. (2003) Preparing for a job in industry. Chem. Eng. News 81, 50 – 51.
• Article: Why Communication Skills Should Matter to You 
Essay on the importance of good communication skills for employability
• Article: Colleges and Employers Don't Value Your Texting Skills   

The time has come to reinvent the liberal arts curriculum in a form that more effectively integrates it with STEM and other majors. Instead of the current emphasis on covering individual topics (e.g., selecting one course each from psychology, literature, philosophy, economics, world history and political science), the emphasis should shift to continued development of important skills: oral communication, written communication, mining information from classic and electronic archives, ethics, critical reasoning skills, teamwork and societal responsibilities. This is not to say that history, philosophy and sociology cannot serve as vehicles for developing these skills but that the manner in which students are taught and evaluated should be given priority over the number of subjects or chapters covered. The selection of skills as the organizing force will drive the creation of new courses in which various separate subjects become integrated around some larger theme. A globalization theme, for example, would meld elements of economics, history, philosophy and geography.

The time has come for the liberal curriculum to emerge from its exile as a hodgepodge of electives to a full partner in developing students whose depth of discipline-specific knowledge is complemented by an adaptable set of intellectual skills.

Peter J. Kennelly ( is a professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He also is chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.

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