The Future of Entrepreneurship in Engineering

Stanford students presenting final projects in mechanical engineering course

Advances across all fields – from communications and manufacturing, to health and defense – have been fueled by America’s engineering workforce in recent decades. But beyond technical expertise, today’s engineers must possess an entrepreneurial mindset in order to be the innovators of tomorrow. While this philosophy is core to the legacy and practice of innovation at Stanford, demand for entrepreneurship education is also growing rapidly among engineering students and faculty around the country.

Epicenter LogoThat’s why we’re part of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation – also known as the Epicenter. Managed by the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), the Epicenter was established in 2011 to expand the infusion of entrepreneurship into undergraduate engineering education.

But beyond technical expertise, today’s engineers must possess an entrepreneurial mindset in order to be the innovators of tomorrow.Along with Stanford mechanical engineering Professor Sheri Sheppard, a principal investigator at the Epicenter, and Phil Weilerstein, executive director of NCIIA, we examined the importance of entrepreneurship efforts in engineering education in a new article featured in the summer issue of The Bridge – a quarterly journal of the National Academy of Engineering.

In the article, we touch on the growing body of research that shows entrepreneurship education gives engineering graduates solid experience in product design and development, prototyping, technology trend-spotting and market analysis. Other studies have shown that students who take part in entrepreneurship programs as undergraduates gain insights not available from traditional engineering education – such as understanding business basics and solving open-ended problems.

We also point out that support for entrepreneurship is expanding beyond business schools on campuses around the country – and is specifically being identified as a high priority at the national level. Two examples include the National Science Foundation’s funding of programs such as Innovation Corps and the Epicenter.

One study of engineering students found that two-thirds of them “agreed that entrepreneurship education would broaden their career prospects and choices.”Another factor in play is the evolving attitudes of students and faculty toward entrepreneurship education. One study of engineering students found that two-thirds of them “agreed that entrepreneurship education would broaden their career prospects and choices.” Meanwhile, according to a recent survey by the American Society for Engineering Education, about half of faculty and administrators responded that access to entrepreneurship programs is important for their engineering undergraduates.

Essential to increasing entrepreneurship education, of course, is engaging faculty and getting their buy in. To that end, we found that devoting resources and providing incentives encourage implementation. And on the student side, one strategy that has worked quite well takes after the NCIIA’s Invention to Venture workshop: where “student ambassadors” are trained to hold events, run competitions and exemplify the path toward becoming an innovator.

We and others have called for an expansion of teaching entrepreneurship from a process-based approach – with known inputs and outputs – to a methods-based approach that supports iteration and more spontaneous creativity.Another key will be thinking of new ways to approach entrepreneurship education. For instance, we and others have called for an expansion of teaching entrepreneurship from a process-based approach – with known inputs and outputs – to a methods-based approach that supports iteration and more spontaneous creativity. In addition, web-based resources in the form of podcasts, videos and massive open online courses are ushering education into a new and promising era.

And looking ahead, we urge each of the following stakeholder groups in undergraduate engineering education to consider the following questions and actions:

Students: Ask questions of your professors, administrators and fellow students. Where does entrepreneurship fit into the educational picture at your school? What opportunities already exist for you?

Engineering faculty: Consider the role of entrepreneurship in all facets of your work, from teaching to research. How might the subjects you teach connect to engineering and business practice? How might your students benefit from seeing this larger context for their technical learning?

Academic administrators: Speak with your faculty, students and alumni about their attitudes about entrepreneurship. How have elements of entrepreneurship and innovation added to their professional success? How might additional training in these areas contribute to future success?

Industry leaders and representatives: Reflect on how your operations use engineers with an entrepreneurial approach and mindset. How can you engage academic program faculty in discussions about the key entrepreneurial skills and abilities you need in your engineering ranks?

Beginning these conversations can expose connections between motivated individuals and groups and yield opportunities for expanding the innovative and entrepreneurial ecosystem at your institution.

With the growing support of entrepreneurship in the engineering community, we are confident that 21st century engineering graduates can and will be equipped with the ability to address the challenges of the coming decades in innovative and economically beneficial ways.

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