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Innovation Needs Engineers with Entrepreneurial Skills to Turn Ideas into Marketable Products

September 6, 2013

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Innovation At Work: Internships at Rose-Hulman Ventures has allowed graduate student Will Kolbus, a 2012 electrical engineering alumnus, to get hands-on experience in innovation and entrepreneurship. (Photo by Shawn Spence)

     You should look no further than your smart phone to realize that innovation would be all but impossible without engineers. But nurturing engineering students to think like entrepreneurs is another story—one that’s becoming increasingly important in today’s competitive marketplace.

     “It’s not enough to graduate with excellent technical skills,” says Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, deputy director of the National Center for Engineering Pathways Innovation (Epicenter). The center’s mission is to infuse innovation and entrepreneurship into undergraduate engineering education across the country. “You need a series of skills that allow you to think big,” he says.

     Rose-Hulman and other top engineering schools are introducing a roster of initiatives, from case studies to faculty workshops, in an effort to instill the entrepreneurial mindset in their students. “Engineers have a history of being entrepreneurial, but here’s a chance to increase awareness,” states Richard Stamper, PhD, interim dean of faculty and professor of medical engineering.

     Encouraging innovation in any student can be an uphill battle. “In general, colleges don’t do a good job of fostering creativity,” Britos Cavagnaro says. “At the college level, it’s about empowering students to be creative. But you have to do that experientially. If you never practice generating ideas, you’re not going to get better.”

     Making room for such a practice in the engineering curriculum, not known for its flexibility, presents an even greater challenge. Moreover, engineers are trained to think linearly, explains Scott Atkin, a retired engineer and entrepreneur who collaborates with Rose-Hulman faculty on innovation initiatives. “Almost by definition, focusing on problem solving and getting to the optimum solutions inhibits innovation. Students will do everything they can to not fail. But when things don’t go well, you have to take a step back and come up with a better solution. Young engineers willing to reflect on that have a much better opportunity to be innovative.”

     Fostering this way of thinking, educators at Rose-Hulman and other higher education institutions are developing multi-faceted approaches within the existing curricula, in addition to efforts outside of the classroom.

     At Rose-Hulman, Tom Mason, PhD, professor emeritus of economics and engineering management, exposes students in his entrepreneurship classes to successful innovators—typically alumni who share their stories with the class. A key tenet is getting students to understand that innovation must fill a need, he says. “An awful lot of technical people think that great ideas become successfully commercialized because of the great idea itself. While that may happen sometimes, it’s generally the exception,” Mason says.

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Innovative Ideas: Annual summer Innovation Workshops have brought together faculty to develop creative ideas for the curriculum, like this summer’s Grand Challenge course and the Home for Environmentally Responsible Engineering program. (Photo by Dale Long)

     Faculty members are also working to incorporate the entrepreneurial mindset across the curriculum. A grant from the Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network is creating a pilot case study for use within the senior design class. “We wanted a way to add content without adding classes,” Stamper says. In addition, the studies would have to be easily deployable in classes with instructors who may have limited entrepreneurial experience.

     For inspiration, Stamper turned to Rose-Hulman’s own industrial collaboration center, Rose-Hulman Ventures. A case study may focus on a decision to design around, license a patent, or a product launch design review. Ultimately, a repository of cases will be used on campus and at other engineering programs throughout the country.

     Getting faculty excited about innovation and entrepreneurship is crucial to the effort. “The most transformative experiences come by doing and reflecting. Teachers become the inspiration and architects of those experiences,” says Britos Cavagnaro.

     For the past four summers, Dean of Innovation and Engagement Bill Kline, PhD, has brought together faculty to work on creative ideas for the curriculum. “We try to encourage faculty to come up with new ways of teaching and new ways of thinking,” he says. These Innovation Workshops have developed a new Grand Challenge summer course and the Home for Environmentally Responsible Engineering program on campus.

     Fostering innovation in today’s engineering students can have an enormous impact on the future for all of us, argues Britos Cavagnaro. “The combination of engineering and entrepreneurship is invaluable. Engineering students can create things that can really have an impact at a scale that’s unbelievable, like a search engine or cure for cancer. The combination is beyond powerful.”