Communicating Effectively for the Built Environment

A reimagined MPM class allows students to understand the hows and whys of impactful communication.

Adaptability matters. 

That was the mantra Nicole Barbosa (MPM '24) and her classmates realized in Professional Communication Practices in Project Management, a reimagined course in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Project Management (MPM) program.

"Communication is all about the way you deliver your message and how others will interpret it," Barbosa said. "So, it’s better to present it in a formatted way. Whatever type of communication you’re using, make it clear, organized, and compelling."

That adaptability mindset is exactly what adjunct lecturer Paul Beilstein hoped students would take away from the course. Beilstein, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern, collaborated with MPM leadership to develop new curricula for a sequence of three communications-intensive courses.

The Professional Communication course, which Beilstein co-teaches with MPM faculty members Laura Pigozzi, Shuwen Li, and Katie Duke, is the first class in the sequence and focuses on the theory of communication. Students then apply the skills they learned as part of the program's two-quarter Capstone project.

"In all three courses, we have implemented a communication framework that combines rhetorical theory and genre studies," Beilstein said. "When developing the learning outcomes, we carefully aligned our vision for the courses with the program's broader principles and goals."

Beilstein said it would be natural for students to focus solely on the physical and technical details of working in the built environment, but MPM program leadership recognizes that communication is also a crucial skill set and differentiator in a crowded marketplace.

"Our students are interested in the hows and whys of building, and for a project to be effective, a great deal of nuanced communication has to happen," he said. "This course provides students with an introduction to communication in their professional domain, which they simply will not get elsewhere prior to the inevitable on-the-job training we all get."

Barbosa said she never thought about the cohesion between a construction background and strong communication skills. She was "pleasantly surprised" to see how easily applicable the lessons learned in the classroom were to life in the built environment.

"Students have the opportunity to learn not only grammatical concepts and formal communication methods used in the industry, but also the nuances of soft skills that every project manager uses in their day-to-day life to communicate with their team, client, or stakeholder," she said.

Christina Hand (MPM '24) agreed.

Hand was particularly impressed by the project scenario students were tasked with throughout the class. The students were given basic details about a project and then spent the quarter engaging with different situations that could arise amid a project's lifecycle.

One such situation? Confrontation. 

"We had to deliver bad news to an upset stakeholder, and a lot of us struggled with delivering the news in a concise manner while trying to balance maintaining a good relationship with the stakeholder," Hand said. "This class really helped me practice my professional voice. A lot of our work was focused on how to communicate with stakeholders of a project with professionalism and concision, which is something I hadn't done before." 

Both students appreciated how customized the content was to their specific industry. They agreed that the attention to detail within the curriculum will benefit them professionally.

"Communication was more than a class where people sat and just talked," Barbosa said. "It gave us a deep foundation and a common ground to walk through any challenge in the built environment."

McCormick News Article