Rice University CEE faculty member incorporates communication in engineering courses

Kalil Erazo explains how engineers can learn to communicate multiculturally.

Kalil Erazo stands in front of a brick wall

“You can’t build a bridge alone,” said Kalil Erazo, Rice University Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE). “You must work with a team of engineers from different backgrounds, and that requires you to communicate in a more effective and global fashion.”

Erazo teaches Rice undergraduate and graduate students about structural engineering and other aspects of resilient civil infrastructure, but his approach incorporates communication strategies as well. To help his students understand how critical their communication skills will be in industry and academia, he invites guest speakers representing a wide range of engineering roles to his senior design course.

“Today, there is a lot of civil infrastructure work, and the lower costs of doing business in other countries means our students’ employers will have offices around the world. Even Rice engineers who remain local will work in conjunction with companies based in other countries. 

“By hearing guest lectures from engineers representing many different cultures and backgrounds, our students begin to see the importance of communicating professionally and to a diverse audience. We are fortunate to be located in Houston where the workforce is very diversified across industries, countries, and continents.”

The Rice community attracts a similarly diverse collection of faculty members and students. Erazo tells students this environment gives them an edge beginning with their first semester, when team-based projects require them to develop engineering designs with teammates who represent unfamiliar perspectives, experiences, and communication styles. 

“Even within the same culture, there are disparities,” said Erazo. “When I see equally great students from different backgrounds working together on the same team, I also see them discovering how to interact with each other. Project-based courses teach our students how to effectively work on a team, and that means learning to listen and convey ideas in a multicultural setting.”

Learning to be a global communicator

Communicating professionally in a multicultural setting did not come naturally to Erazo. He said his first language is Spanish so applying to graduate schools and working in the United States meant he had to ramp up his confidence speaking and writing in English. As a master’s student in Atlanta, he began reading multiple research papers to build his civil engineering English vocabulary. Immersing himself in labs, classrooms, and conferences conducted in English rounded out his technical vocabulary and confidence as a speaker.

He said, “To become a better communicator, surround yourself with people who write and speak well. It is contagious. Also, you’ll find many people willing to help. My wife was born and raised in the U.S. She is very smart, reads and writes a lot, speaks to audiences in the energy industry, and credits her strong communication skills in part for her successful career path. When I asked, she was willing to help me improve my own career communication skills.

“At Rice, lean on the global nature of your peers to learn how to be a better multicultural communicator. Particularly if you want a job in Houston, and there are many great engineering jobs in Houston, it helps applicants to have this kind of multicultural communication background.”

Communicating well in a job talk or interview

Most engineering students apply to Rice for its strong technical program, but Erazo said industry professionals and academics alike must be a good communicators to be competitive. Relating a lesson to their careers usually makes any topic more interesting to his students, so he doesn’t hesitate to use examples that pique their interest for communicating well in an interview or an academic job talk.

“Until an engineer is working, they may not realize how huge a part communication plays in advancement or even getting an offer. There are hundreds of peers applying for the same roles and promotions.  People in industry want strong communicators in their leadership roles. From managers upwards, these leaders are meeting with clients and talking with partners or suppliers. I; if you are sloppy at communicating, –-- even if you are a strong engineer, — how you communicate is what will reflect your ability. It will make or break your growth opportunities in industry. 

“It is the same in academia. To get any faculty or research job, you must give a job talk about your work to convince faculty or national lab researchers that they need to hire you. Applying to graduate school or obtaining a funded graduate position? You will be among hundreds of applicants and only a handful will get an interview based on how they write their cover letter, demos, and CV,” said Erazo.

Engineering-focused communication lessons at Rice 

Rice engineers from undergrads to faculty members have multiple opportunities to enhance their communication skills. The Activate Engineering Communication Program led by Tracy Volz offers a variety of resources. Activate coaches help first year and senior design students hone their final project presentations, workshops help future faculty candidates prepare for job talks and refine their application materials, and staff members can help professors improve their grant writing skills.

“We are really fortunate to work with Tracy and her team,” Erazo said. “In fact, new students in our professional master’s program (MCEE) now write an essay before they even arrive at Rice. Tracy reviews their work and gives good constructive feedback so each new MCEE student hits the ground running with a solid grasp of basic professional writing skills. They meet Tracy and her team again when they prepare presentations about their projects. 

“We also have great engineering leadership courses through RCEL. I encourage all our students to take one or two of the leadership classes where they hear practical advice from engineering leaders who have a lot of experience leading engineering teams and projects.”

In addition to industry job talks, Rice engineers can also hear visiting faculty members speak in each department’s colloquium series or listen to faculty candidates give presentations and respond to questions about their work. 

“Whether our students are headed to grad school, research, or industry, they can hear invited talks by speakers who exemplify clear communication skills,” Erazo said. 

“Frequently, our industry speakers will stress the importance of their leadership training, saying management roles are simply not available to applicants who cannot communicate well. Because many of our Rice engineering students aspire to these roles, they take the speakers’ comments seriously and seek opportunities to improve their own communication skills.”