Flipping engineering educational standards

Engineering Leadership Development flips classroom to enhance educational benefits for students

Penn State Head Football Coach James Franklin speaks with engineering leadership development students during an ENGR 408 class during the spring 2016 semester. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) students, processing the advanced concepts covered in textbooks and readings for college classes can be a daunting task to undertake. Without interactive and explanatory experiences to demonstrate these concepts, STEM students may often find it difficult to understand the material their textbooks cover.

The Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) program is working to change that by flipping its ENGR 408 Leadership Principles course.

In spring 2016, ELD faculty members decided to convert to a flipped model course, where students review content related to engineering leadership prior to class each week. This content covers topics that range from leadership theory, self-awareness and technical project management to leading across generations and cultures and conflict management. Throughout the semester, students participate in in-class activities and projects that help enhance their knowledge of the engineering leadership concepts learned outside of the classroom.

“The flipped model gives students an opportunity to actually learn the theories and concepts relevant to leadership and reflect and apply what they have learned through an experiential nature,” said Meg Handley, associate director of engineering leadership outreach.

Activities in ENGR 408 include guest speakers, team projects, discussions and a mock career fair with corporate representatives. Since the inception of the flipped classroom model, Eric Barron, Penn State president; Michael Kraft, senior vice president and general manager of Lycoming Engines; James Franklin, Penn State head football coach; and Michael Giorgione, a retired Navy rear admiral and commander of Camp David during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, have been invited to speak to students.

Corporate speakers also provide insight into the interview process during a mock career fair. Representatives from General Motors, Rockwell Automation, General Electric (GE), Ingersoll Rand and Textron have visited the ELD classroom to assist students with communicating leadership qualities and experiences during the recruiting process.

“Students are able to ask guest speakers questions to better understand course content application in a work setting,” Mike Erdman, Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development and instructor of engineering science, said. “Hearing professionals talk about the same leadership challenges that are present in both the content and experiential nature of our course is a powerful learning tool.”

When guest speakers are not in the classroom, Handley said students work on activities that foster self-awareness through psychometric testing and impacts on team dynamics. Students discuss topics like personality differences, what leadership styles might be most helpful when dealing with differences while working on a project and how to keep the lines of communication open during inevitable conflicts that arise.

One of the first class activities students complete is the creation of a team mark design that represents their goals and objectives and reflects what they have learned about the different personalities that make up the team.

“Through this, they create awareness of themselves and others to help foster optimal team working conditions throughout the semester,” Erdman said.

Teams use the knowledge they gain from activities like this to work on a large semester-long project. Each week, a different team member serves as the team leader. He or she must lead the team in meeting project goals and deadlines set for that week. At the end of each leader’s week, he or she presents a five-minute report to the instructor, who serves as a mock CEO or project manager. During the presentation, students discuss what they accomplished, where they are headed with the project and why they are headed in that direction. Peers provide weekly performance feedback to further build self-awareness of leadership and management skills in a project setting.

“This experiential portion of the class provides an excellent opportunity for students to apply the concepts they are learning each week through the course content and subsequent activities,” Handley said. “Seeing how personalities impact team performance, but also having a perspective on why a teammate might be behaving in a particular manner and how to deal with those differences provides learning experiences that are applicable in the workplace.”

Handley said the success of a flipped classroom in ENGR 408 lead ELD to expand its experiential learning concept to its capstone and ENGR 409 Leadership in Organizations courses.

Fall 2016 capstone students traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, to meet with Papa Fall, a client working to create a sustainable model for growing, harvesting and processing Moringa, a superfood plant grown in climates in Africa and India. Students researched the plant and its processing in order to design prototypes for machines that will improve upon harvesting and handling. By meeting Papa Fall at his packaging and distribution center in Asheville, students were able to interact with and receive feedback from him on their design. This feedback will be used to improve their designs for their spring 2017 trip to Senegal for testing and refinement.

“The opportunity to meet directly with a client provides engineering leadership students with experience in presenting and communicating technical ideas to non-technical stakeholders,” Handley said. “Receiving direct feedback on if their ideas would work helps to further enhance technical problem, while also teaching students to listen to the voice of the customer, a very important design aspect.”

Additional trips to the GE Transportation headquarters in Erie, Pennsylvania, and to Rockwell Automation in Cleveland, Ohio, are planned for the spring 2017 ENGR 409 course.

“We want to give students more opportunities to meet with people who will be utilizing their engineering expertise, whether in a client situation or in the workplace,” Erdman said. “Both GE and Rockwell Automation are strong supporters of the ELD program and its efforts to enhance leadership, innovation and communications knowledge and competence in Penn State engineers.”

The ELD program also plans to incorporate this type of learning environment into its one-year, non-thesis Master of Engineering in Engineering Leadership and Innovation Management degree. Applications for this program are now being accepted. To learn more, visit

Last Updated December 12, 2016