Howe School Teaching Engineers to Approach Problems Like Entrepreneurs

Course is First Part of Innovation Spine to Broaden Students' Business Skills

4/3/2014

It’s clear, upon wandering into Dr. Peter Koen’s Introduction to Entrepreneurship course, that this is not your ordinary class.

Music blares from the front of a busy lecture hall, while a laptop projects a digital countdown to the start of class at the front of the room. There are cameras positioned about the room, and two industrial-sized bags of popcorn rest near the door.

It’s a real change of pace for the average engineering student, which may be why they like it. Talk to students in the class and you hear words like freedom, enthusiasm, excitement.

As freshman Tyler Samms said, “There’s no formulas. Instead, it’s about imagination.”

Importance of entrepreneurial thinking

This year’s freshman class is the first required to take Introduction to Entrepreneurship as part of a planned “innovation spine” that will round out the rigorous engineering curriculum with a grounding in entrepreneurial thinking and how to speak the language of business.

“Our engineering class, 80 to 90 percent of them don’t want to be entrepreneurs. However, entrepreneurial thinking is absolutely important,” Koen said. “What company doesn’t want new ideas, innovative people, creative people? So what we teach our students is to look through the world like an entrepreneur would look through the world.

Entrepreneurial thinking emphasizes problem-solving that isn’t constrained by dogma, and requires imaginative approaches to uncertainty and a commitment to putting ideas into practice. That’s a skills set that complements a technical education, as it encourages the kind of thinking required to make sense of complex, interdisciplinary problems faced in the real world.

The course was designed to be student centric, with lively classroom discussion and group work, and an emphasis on learning by doing. Students identify problems, meet with customers and develop prototypes, and refine concepts as they gather more data. They learn to work in teams on their projects, develop presentation skills as they share what they’ve learned, and create YouTube videos for a potential Kickstarter audience. In fact, seven of those projects have been accepted by Kickstarter.

The course puts Stevens among just a handful of universities requiring engineering students to take an introductory course in entrepreneurship, said Dr. Christos Christodoulatos, vice provost for innovation and entrepreneurship at Stevens.

“And this is just the first experience students will have with entrepreneurship,” he said.

The Howe School, with its focus on the place where business and technology intersect, was a natural starting point for such a program, and has incorporated cutting-edge techniques that Koen has been exposed to through his role as director of Stevens’ Consortium for Corporate Entrepreneurship. His partner in developing the course, Dr. Gary Lynn, is an accomplished researcher of technical innovation and entrepreneurship who studies how firms and individuals develop and commercialize products and services. He spent 10 years in industry, and started, developed and sold three companies while working in the private sector.

“You need to go to the guys with the expertise,” Christodoulatos said. “That’s Peter and Gary.”

Koen and Lynn created an entrepreneurship course for students at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia that served as a template for this offering. A highlight of the course is a business simulation competition featuring all 3,000 UKM freshmen.

Translating that experience to one that suits Stevens students has been successful, according to Dr. Michael Bruno, dean of the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science.

“We have found that students very much appreciate this course and the approach taken by the instructors, regardless of their field of study and their eventual career interest,” Bruno said. Entrepreneurial thinking, he said, “allows us to take ideas and turn them into reality for the benefit of society. When a young person realizes that he or she can make this happen, it is a transformative experience.”

And Stevens students can’t afford to fall behind as this frontier expands.

“If we don’t educate our students in this area of innovation and entrepreneurship, regardless of their disciplines, we really short-change them in the long run,” Christodoulatos said.

Making their pitch

In the program’s seventh week, each team in the 500-student class presented their three-minute videos while fellow students munched popcorn and evaluated them.

Among the ideas: A variety of smartphone apps, a sensor system for sports to improve officiating, a digital fingerprint lock and a digital smart wallet.

The Fingerprint Lock team’s video demonstrated the problems with traditional locks, and followed that with a crisp presentation outlining the evolution of the program from a digital bike lock to one that could be used anywhere. This is one of the projects Kickstarter picked to place on its crowdsourcing website.

Making their presentation more seamless was the fact that they wore Malaysian shirts, almost looking like they were in uniform.

“We found out if we just headed toward bike riders, we’re targeting a small market … you’re only selling one lock to one person,” Samms said. “When we made a padlock-type device — it can go to gyms, school lockers, everything. It just blew up.”

Members of the team said the class made them more marketable. “It can definitely help you in the long run, in the sense that if you do land a job, you can get higher up if you’re pitching ideas to your superiors,” said Bradley Applegate. The class “helps you learn to just come up with ideas on the spot.”

Part of what encourages that is the emphasis on interacting with potential customers. Koen, in remarks during class, jokingly said his response to customers who disliked a product “was to fire the customer.” That’s not an option in class.

One team that took that to heart, literally, was Music for the Moment. The team wanted to develop headphones that would measure your heart rate, then play appropriate songs from your phone. But the customers they spoke with balked at the idea of expensive headphones they might lose or break.

The result? An app that allows you to select your mood, then builds a playlist from your library around your mood. The team sold it with a high-quality video that showcased the problem with shuffling random music: A sleeping student is roused from a nap by blaring, up-tempo tunes, while a runner’s phone suddenly switches over to quiet, reflective music.

“We learned that the main goal of an entrepreneur is to make your business work, not just make your idea work,” said Dylan Praul. “You have to have the problem before the solution.”

Teammate Miranda Rohn said she saw the value in a course focused on entrepreneurial thinking.

“A lot will of the information will help us,” Rohn said. “We’re engineers, we’re going to be making stuff and building things — but to understand the way that the markets and how businesses work is really good.”

That’s a value Koen brought up during class.

“When you go for a job interview, you’ll leave them asking, ‘Where did they get all those neat business skills, and get to talk the jargon of business?’ ” he said.

Beyond technical skills

That’s imperative for today’s engineer, who needs more than technical skills to make an impact in the workplace.

“Teamwork, leadership, communication — these are skills you need in order to excel, to be professionally successful,” Christodoulatos said. Employers “want innovation to be part of their culture, they want people who can take calculated risks.”

Those are just some of the lessons students took from the class.

“The most important thing we learned is just to get out there,” said Nicole Regenauer, who had the original idea for the mood headphones. “Maybe you don’t know everything when you start, but if you never try, you’re never going to learn.”

Teammate Danielle Caruso, meanwhile, took a lot out of the customer surveys. The key lesson, she said, is “to welcome criticism. It’s hard to hear that your idea is bad, or that time and time again, your problem isn’t there — but someone is bound to give a good suggestion to help you out.”

Christodoulatos finds such feedback invaluable.

“I’m impressed how students change — how their skills to present, to deliver their idea in a more concise and clear way. It’s just amazing,” he said. “That’s what we’re after. Kids that can go up there, they know how to speak, they know how to give a pitch — that’s what makes them more desirable as employees.”