Montana State University

MSU researchers win international award for paper about engineering leadership

October 10, 2017 -- by Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

Montana State University civil engineering graduate student Nolan Napp, right, speaks with Katey Plymesser, assistant professor in civil engineering at MSU, while conducting field research outside Jackson, Montana, on Thursday, July 20, 2017. MSU researchers are exploring how engineering education shapes engineers' leadership experience. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN - Two Montana State University researchers have received an international award recognizing their study about the leadership experiences of engineering students.

Bill Schell, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in MSU’s College of Engineering, and Bryce Hughes, assistant professor in the Department of Education in MSU’s College of Education, Health and Human Development, won the American Society for Engineering Management’s Merritt Williamson Award, which recognizes the best paper presented at the organization’s annual international conference.

The conference papers were reviewed and the winners selected ahead of the Oct. 18-21 event in Huntsville, Alabama, where the MSU researchers will accept their award.

The paper - titled “Are Engineers’ Leadership Attitudes and Experiences Different Than Other Students?” - was the researchers’ first substantive publication under a $300,000 grant they won from the National Science Foundation in February.

“It’s a good feeling that the research is already having an impact, and we’re just getting started,” said Hughes, who is an affiliated faculty member of the Montana Engineering Education Research Center in MSU’s College of Engineering.

In the paper, the researchers present their analysis of a national dataset and findings about whether leadership experiences among engineering students differ from those of students in other fields. They identified significant differences, including that engineering students are less likely than their peers to see themselves as leaders, even though they are actually more likely to hold leadership positions in student organizations.

The early findings “are supporting the hypotheses that we had going into the project,” said Schell, who is one of Montana Engineering Education Research Center’s two associate directors.

“We’re starting to support, with actual empirical evidence, what many in the engineering management field know intuitively,” which is that engineering graduates have untapped leadership potential but need to develop it earlier in their engineering experience, he said.

That’s increasingly important because some of the biggest engineering challenges of our time - such as developing sustainable energy systems or mapping the human brain - will best be accomplished through multi-disciplinary collaboration in which effective leadership is key to success, according to Schell.

The National Survey of Student Engagement dataset that the researchers analyzed for the winning paper is the smaller of the two they will eventually utilize under the NSF grant. They will apply their findings by engaging with students in various forums at MSU, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Texas at Arlington. The research will produce course modules for engineering leadership development that could be incorporated into engineering curricula.

Winning the award “makes the forthcoming research even more exciting,” Schell said.

Contact: Bill Schell,, 406-994-5938.

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