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Identifying Effective Student Leaders to Improve Capstone Design Team Assignments

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Designing and Implementing Leadership Development Experiences for Engineering Students

Tagged Division

Engineering Leadership Development

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Paper Authors


Blake Everett Johnson University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Dr. Blake Everett Johnson is a teaching assistant professor and instructional laboratory manager in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include experimental fluid mechanics, measurement science, and engineering education. He oversees undergraduate laboratories in fluid mechanics, fluid dynamics, and heat transfer. Pedagogically, Dr. Johnson employs active learning, inquiry-based laboratory instruction, and any initiative that empowers students to do hands-on learning. Additional service interests include teaching and leadership training for graduate students, enhancing communication education for undergraduate engineering students, developing evidence-based design project team formation strategies, and improving engineering design curricula.

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Molly H. Goldstein University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Orcid 16x16

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Molly H. Goldstein is an engineering design educator and researcher at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She previously worked as an environmental engineer specializing in air quality influencing her focus in engineering design with environmental concerns. Her research interests include how students approach decision making in an engineering design context. She obtained her BS in General Engineering (Systems & Design) and MS in Systems and Entrepreneurial Engineering from the University of Illinois and PhD in Engineering Education from Purdue University.

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Joe Bradley University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Joe Bradley is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Teaching Assistant Professor at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, and Lecturer in the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

He has worked in a variety of industry sectors that includes – consumer products, software, and government research. He teaches or has taught courses in engineering design, engineering projects, new product development, value chain management, and intellectual property management strategy. Joe is also a co-founder of Sun Buckets, Inc. ( Sun Buckets develops, builds, and commercializes thermal energy storage technologies and products primarily targeting energy scarcity in developing regions.

His research focus is on technology management, product development, and policy – how information is used and managed within an innovation system. He is interested in challenges at the interface of product development, technology management, intellectual property management, public policy, and entrepreneurship.

Joe earned his bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, his master’s in Mechanical Engineering (minor Electrical Engineering) from Iowa State University, and his MBA and PhD in Systems Engineering both from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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This work-in-progress study seeks to inform about the need for identifying leadership skills that result in successful outcomes for student project teams. The study is done in the context of a curriculum that presently has no formal leadership training, such that effective leadership among the students occurs in an ad-hoc manner.

Engineers in industry are required to work in teams to accomplish large goals. Similarly, engineering students often work in teams in course projects cornerstone through capstone. The stakes of capstone design projects are often high as teams work together to address a large design problem. However, the success of these student teams is highly variable and often related to key team personnel, especially those students whose work catalyzes their team to work successfully toward achieving project objectives. This work-in-progress investigates the common characteristics of effective student leaders in engineering team projects.

This study is situated in the context of a capstone design course in a mechanical engineering program at a large midwestern university. The curriculum presently has no required training in engineering leadership. This multi-method study employs purposeful sampling to identify top-performing teams from the past four semesters. In the first phase of the study, faculty advisors of those teams were contacted for complete semi-structured interviews to share their perspectives regarding individual students’ contributions. The second phase of the study focuses on the students of these successful teams (i.e. alumni), especially any team members who are identified as the catalyst for the team’s success. Alumni participate in semi-structured interviews concerning the formative experiences that molded them into the leaders that they were during the course. The students will also complete a quantitative survey.

In the qualitative phase of data analysis, the research team will inductively code both sets of transcripts from the interviews to develop common themes that could relate to personality traits, upbringing, education, work experiences, and others. In the quantitative phase of data analysis, the research team will perform correlations with the survey data to better understand some of the resultant theme relationship.

The results of this study are intended to be used to inform the development and implementation of new leadership curricula in project-based courses, which may be implemented earlier in the degree program than the senior year. It has the potential to aid in the early identification of effective student leaders, possibly even before certain students have yet developed good leadership skills. In the capstone course, the study may be used to develop an improved method for distributing effective student leaders among more teams. Earlier in the curriculum, the results of this study may help to improve academic advising, using evidence to encourage certain students to get involved in leadership opportunities.

Johnson, B. E., & Goldstein, M. H., & Bradley, J. (2020, June), Identifying Effective Student Leaders to Improve Capstone Design Team Assignments Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34745

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