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Developing Engineering Leaders Using a Reflective Autobiographical Exercise

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Curriculum Development in Engineering Leadership

Tagged Division

Engineering Leadership Development Division

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Paper Authors


David Niño Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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David Niño, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, where he has a strong commitment to the development of leadership among undergraduates and graduate students across MIT and among engineers, more broadly. In addition to MIT teaching, he is active in an international consortium of engineering leadership centers and a founding officer of the Engineering Leadership Development Division of the American Society of Engineering Education.

Prior to MIT, Niño was a faculty member in the schools of engineering and business at Rice University. He led Rice’s university-wide program in leadership development and later played a leading role in designing and establishing the university’s first four-year academic certificate in engineering leadership. He also organized a premier international conference on engineering leadership, which garnered participation from the President of the National Academy of Engineering, 28 universities, and leading companies such as Boeing, NASA, and Shell.

He has served as an advisor and board member to startups and has consulted with managers and senior executives from many industries, governments, and nations. Niño has published on the topics of organizational culture, courage, ethics, and the development of management and leadership skills. He holds a Ph.D. in Management from the University of Texas at Austin, where he also earned his B.A., B.B.A., and M.A. degrees.

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This paper explains an autobiographical exercise that helps engineering students build self-awareness of their distinctive leadership strengths and aspirations. Originally based on the theoretical work associated with the Reflected Best-Self (Roberts, Dutton, Spreitzer, Heaphy, and Quinn 2005) and life narratives (Ligon, Hunter, and Mumford 2008), this semester-long assignment enables students to use qualitative and quantitative methods to discover and articulate their unique capabilities, values, defining life experiences, and other core elements of their identity. We often think of college as being one of the most formative periods of someone’s life. Yet many students may graduate from college without ever spending time addressing questions that are central to forming a confident sense of self - “Who am I”, “What do I stand for, “Who do I want to become”, and why. These kinds of questions are rarely addressed in typical college courses and probably never addressed in engineering courses. We know from research that these types of questions are not only important for adult development, but they are especially important to leader development (Day, Harrison, and Halpin 2009; Ibarra, Snook, and Ramo 2010). The autobiographical exercise described in this paper is based on several streams of research, as well as ten years of application and use in my leadership courses. I have used it with graduate, undergraduate, and executive students in both engineering and non-engineering contexts. In this conference paper and presentation, I explain the methods through which students gather the qualitative and quantitative data needed for the exercise, how students analyze and summarize this data, how they reflect on life experiences to contextualize the data and draw key insights, and how students can synthesize the insights into an autobiographical narrative that ties the whole exercise together. Finally, I explain how students can use the insights from this exercise for future developmental and leadership purposes. The course paper that culminates from this exercise is one that many students have reported as being one of the most powerful development experiences that they have ever had. In the ASEE paper and presentation, I will share how I situate this assignment in the context of a larger engineering leadership course, as well as recommendations on overcoming some of the difficult challenges that often arise in implementing and grading the assignment.

References David V. Day, Michelle M. Harrison, and Stanley M. Halpin (2009) An integrative approach to leader development: Connecting adult development, identity, and expertise. New York: Routledge. Herminia Ibarra, Scott Snook, and Laura Guillen Ramo (2010) "Identity-Based Leader Development." Chap. 22 in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, 657–678. Harvard Business Press. Gina Ligon, Samuel Hunter, and Michael Mumford (2008) Development of outstanding leadership: A life narrative approach, Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 19, pp. 312-334. Laura Morgan Roberts, Jane E. Dutton, Gretchen M. Spreitzer, Emily D. Heaphy, Robert E. Quinn (2005) Composing the Reflected Best-Self portrait: building pathways for becoming extraordinary in work organizations, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 30, pp. 712-736.

Niño, D. (2016, June), Developing Engineering Leaders Using a Reflective Autobiographical Exercise Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.27290

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