Engineering Leadership Development using an Interdisciplinary Competition-Based Approach with Cross Functional Teams


This paper presents results of an effort to employ an experiential learning program, known as the EcoChallenge, using cross-functional teams to address a “real-world” sustainability issue to aid in the development of leadership skills of undergraduate engineering students. While experiential learning has been demonstrated to be an effective tool for leadership development, integration of disciplines outside of engineering at the undergraduate level, specifically business majors, in cross-functional teams has presented logistical, assessment, and educational challenges in a class setting. The lack of such integrated educational experiences may be problematic as an abundance of anecdotal evidence and calls by professional engineering organizations, including ASEE and NAE, suggest that engineers must learn to work effectively with accounting, marketing, communications, and other functional group members within a given organizational structure to attain project success. And while those calls are not new, there are only a handful of documented undergraduate-level capstone experiences focusing on leadership development that have crossed college boundaries in a graded academic course, and thus have a higher level of risk for the student versus extra- or co-curricular activities. A survey of engineering alumni in senior management positions identified the ability to effectively work in cross-functional teams as one of the top three skills engineering students lack upon entering the workplace. Using that data and anecdotal evidence of need as drivers for curricular change, a competition was designed employing teams from both engineering and business schools to identify and solve a sustainability problem. Each student was not only focused on the overall competition, but also in defining their roles and leadership opportunities including influencing stakeholders or teammates in specific areas of action. Additionally, teams and individual students had periodic metrics to report and milestones to achieve. The project culminated in a formal business pitch from each team in a competition assessed by a panel of experts. Students were also provided opportunity to follow-up with their projects into the implementation phase. This paper attempts to address the question of how can a sustainability-focused, semester-long, course-based learning experience that integrates students across academic colleges be used to help students develop leadership skills. The paper will include a review of the pedagogical approach and the structure of the capstone leadership development project for business and engineering majors in the context of a competitive sustainability challenge program using cross-functional teams. Collected assessment data of leadership development, analyses of the data, and recommendations are provided. Results of direct assessment show a statistically significant improvement in in three of four leadership areas, while student self-assessments do not show statistically significant improvement.

Meeting Name

ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition (2019: Jun. 16-19, Tampa, FL)


Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

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Article - Conference proceedings

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© 2019 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), All rights reserved.

Publication Date

19 Jun 2019