Perspective: Educating Innovators
By Dean Joseph J. Helble
Until recently, most discussions of innovation and entrepreneurship on university campuses were largely confined to schools of business. Although engineers have always contributed to making the discoveries and inventing the core technologies that led to the establishment of commercial enterprises, the process of building a team and converting these ideas into business opportunities was not something engineering students were generally taught.
Things have certainly changed.
Innovation and entrepreneurship, concepts that have long been part of Dartmouth’s undergraduate program in ENGS 21: “Introduction to Engineering” and other courses, are now embraced as core elements of an engineering education at most leading universities. Students are taught to work in teams, identify a need, brainstorm possible solutions, evaluate and rank all possible approaches, design, prototype, build, test, evaluate, assess societal benefit, and assess potential commercial value. I am convinced that embracing the creative process of discovery, invention, and commercialization as a natural part of an engineering education is helping to transform student perceptions of what an engineering education is all about. I am also convinced that it is a major reason for the nationwide surge in interest in engineering.
Early data from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) tell us that B.S. degree totals increased by nearly 10,000 in 2012 to their highest total in three decades. Growth was certainly evident at Dartmouth, where we graduated the largest A.B. and B.E. engineering classes in our nearly 150-year history this past June. Engineering, in fact, was the largest science major at Dartmouth in the class of 2013, and the third largest major overall. Looking at the number of declared engineering majors in the sophomore and junior classes, I see continued growth, a story repeated by many engineering deans across the country.
While the Thayer community has long understood the connection between engineering and technology entrepreneurship, for years we mainly provided this education for our undergraduate students. Recognizing that a comparable need existed at the doctoral level—where engineering students are helping develop advanced solutions to challenges in medicine, energy, the environment, and communications—Thayer School undertook an experiment in 2008: We founded the nation’s first doctoral-level program in engineering innovation and entrepreneurship. Our Ph.D. Innovation Program students receive advanced academic training in engineering and business, undertake an internship to develop their own technology or gain experience working in a startup, and receive funding independent of faculty research grants to help them pursue the development of their own ideas. Admission to this selective program is capped at five students per year.
During the first five years of the Ph.D. Innovation Program, two successful startups have already emerged, an entrepreneur who is a member of the National Academy of Engineering has assumed leadership of the program, and a growing number of students have learned to ask a different set of questions, build a team, assess risk, and develop a different set of solutions. Several students have noted how participation in this program has given them the knowledge and confidence to transform research discoveries into viable enterprises. All signs indicate that this experiment has been a success, and that this program is here to stay.
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