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The Emergence of the Project Manager Role in Student Design Teams: A Mixed-Methods Exploratory Study

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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

Design Teams 1

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

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Meagan Flus University of Waterloo Orcid 16x16

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Meagan Flus is a MASc student in the Department of Management Sciences at the University of Waterloo. Her current research area is engineering design education with specific interest in design cognition. Her future work will focus on the intersection of data and design.

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Ada Hurst University of Waterloo Orcid 16x16

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Ada Hurst is a Continuing Lecturer in the Department of Management Sciences at the University of Waterloo. She has taught and coordinated the capstone design courses in the Management Engineering program since 2011. She also teaches courses in organizational theory, technology, and behaviour. Her research falls in the areas of design cognition and processes, engineering design education, and gender issues in STEM disciplines. She is interested in innovations in engineering design pedagogy, problem-based learning, and effective teamwork in student teams. After completing undergraduate studies in electrical engineering, she continued on to earn a Masters and then a doctoral degree in management sciences, all from the University of Waterloo.

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The emergence of the project manager role in student design teams: A mixed-methods exploratory study

Design projects require significant collaborative teamwork and planning. Studies have shown that student use of project management techniques can nearly guarantee project success. Yet, capstone design project instructors do not typically formalize a project management role in teams, and when given the choice, students do not always designate a project manager.

The objective of this research was to investigate the project manager (PM) role in student capstone design project teams and, in particular, to explore: if, how, why, and when a PM emerged. More specifically, of interest were also what project management models students followed, how the project management model changed throughout the capstone project timeline, and whether the project team shared a mental model of their project management approach.

To pursue these objectives, we conducted a two-phase exploratory mixed-methods study. In the first phase of the study, we drew qualitative insights through a longitudinal cohort study in the Department of Knowledge Integration at the University of Waterloo. Five groups of 5-6 third year students in this department who were completing their capstone design project participated in five rounds of semi-structured interviews over 7 months. The qualitative findings demonstrate that emergent group conflict led to increases in PM involvement. Group members reported that a PM naturally emerged before they were recognized by the team in a formal PM role.

In the second-phase of the study, we sought to investigate if findings from the longitudinal cohort study of Knowledge Integration students would be confirmed in a larger cohort of engineering students. 319 fourth year engineering students from 122 teams in six disciplines completed a one-time survey upon the completion of their capstone design projects. 45% of respondents self-reported as acting as a PM at some point during the project. On average, the PM emerged during the second month of the project, with 41% of respondents stating a need for organizational management as the reason for a PM. PMs either emerged naturally or based on group decision. Almost a third of the teams reported changing PMs and/or project management models throughout the course of their project. Interestingly, in 52 of the teams, there was disagreement in the individual members’ responses about the PM model the team had used.

Further analysis examines how project management models supported group success, using evidence from both qualitative and quantitative data. Ultimately, the results are an insight into the behaviours of student capstone teams and could further direct the design of project management instruction in capstone project courses in order to better equip students for success.

Flus, M., & Hurst, A. (2020, June), The Emergence of the Project Manager Role in Student Design Teams: A Mixed-Methods Exploratory Study Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35314

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