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How Do Human Interaction Labs Contribute to Engineering Leadership Development Growth?

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Innovative and Impactful Engineering Leadership Pedagogy

Tagged Division

Engineering Leadership Development

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Paper Authors


Brett Tallman P.E. Montana State University, Bozeman

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Brett Tallman is currently a Doctoral student in Engineering at Montana State University (MSU), with focus on engineering leadership. His previous degrees include a Masters degree in Education from MSU (active learning in an advanced quantum mechanics environment) and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell. Prior to his academic career, he worked in the biotech (Lead Engineer), product design, and automotive (Toyota) sectors for 14 years, and is a licensed Professional Engineer. He has also taught high school and attended seminary. You can find more of his engineering education work at or on his YouTube channel.

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Werner Zorman Harvey Mudd College

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Werner Zorman is the Associate Professor and Annenberg Chair of Leadership at Harvey Mudd College. Before he joined Harvey Mudd, he was the Associate Director of Leadership Programs at Cornell’s College of Engineering from 2012 to 2016.

Mr. Zorman received his M.S. degree in computer science from the University of Technology in Vienna. He worked for 23+ years in the telecom industry in Europe and North America as engineer, leader, mentor, coach and leadership development professional.

After a long and fulfilling customer-facing career, Mr. Zorman decided in 2007 to change his career direction and to focus on leadership development, mentoring and coaching to support engineers on their journey to become effective and successful leaders. He designed and delivered programs in the area of leadership- and team development addressing areas like effective communication, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and customer service excellence.

It was during those five years when he realized that supporting young professionals with their leadership development is his life calling. He decided to leave corporate business and accepted a position at Cornell’s College of Engineering.

During the last years, Mr. Zorman has focused on the design and implementation of a course using a student-led laboratory method which supports the development of authentic and courageous leaders.

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A core practice of the engineering profession is working in interdisciplinary teams to create solutions to today’s complex challenges. An important skillset within these teams is leadership, acknowledged by ABET in its most recent requirements. However, many engineering programs leave leadership development to chance, or they focus only on select students. Moreover, there is evidence that these skill-based leadership development programs fail to provide substantial value. Therefore, new approaches must be explored to secure effective leadership development for engineering graduates.

Leadership studies experts have long acknowledged the limitations of traditional skill-based programs. In response, the field is increasingly exploring and acknowledging the effectiveness of identity-based approaches to leadership development, providing a foundation for recent research in engineering leadership identity. Additionally, Human Interaction Labs have demonstrated particularly substantial impact on the interpersonal competencies necessary for relational leadership processes. Hence, these Labs may hold promise as a potential approach for effectively developing interpersonal skills within a leadership context.

This research paper presents a theoretical model of the way engineering leadership identity development is impacted by Human Interaction Labs (Bradford, Gibb, and Benne, 1966). These Labs provide a scaffold for cultivating interpersonal competencies-- which are essential for seeing oneself as an engineering leader—by promoting an authentic, holistic, relational framework. Next, this paper focuses on identity transitions that are widely experienced during college. The first process is self-authorship, where individuals learn to create their own meaning and knowledge (Baxter Magolda, 1998). The second process is belonging, from Lave and Wenger’s (1998) community of practice model. They argue that professional identity develops through belonging to a community of practitioners (in this case, engineering professionals). Engineering identity is further defined in terms of Rottmann, Sacks, and Reeve’s (2015) three dimensions of engineering leadership: Technical Mastery, Collaborative Optimization, and Organizational Innovation. Finally, leadership identity is understood in terms of Komives, Owen, Longerbeam, Mainella, and Osteen’s (2005) Leadership Identity Development model, where students transition from a positional to relational understanding and self-concept of leadership.

The structure of this paper starts with an explanation of Human Interaction Labs. Next, the paper explores identity models and their relevance to engineering education. Once this background has been established, the work focuses on particular ways in which Human Interaction Labs impact leadership identity development for engineering students. This process demonstrates the value and limitations of Human Interaction Labs in engineering leadership development, thereby proposing their role in a comprehensive engineering education program. Initial findings indicate that scaffolding, authentic experiences, and reflection are core elements of how Human Interaction Labs contribute to identity development. Moreover, extant theory suggests that student self-authorship, belonging in the engineering community, and more relational practices of leadership may also develop due to these Labs. (Gibb 1970, Benne 1975) In summary, this research sets the foundation for further qualitative and quantitative exploration of Human Interaction Labs’ impact on engineering leadership identity development.

Tallman, B., & Zorman, W. (2021, July), How Do Human Interaction Labs Contribute to Engineering Leadership Development Growth? Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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