Building a bridge from engineering to entrepreneurship

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Engineering students at Rochester Institute of Technology are learning to think like business creators and problem solvers, joining a trend that’s gathering steam: the integration of entrepreneurially minded learning in engineering.

RIT recently announced its membership in KEEN: Engineering Unleashed, a national partnership of roughly 50 universities, including Baylor University, Drexel University and Ohio State University, focused on advancing engineering education. The Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network—KEEN—and its entrepreneurial mindset aims to foster critical thinking and examine out-of-the-box ways to contribute to industry, building the next generation of engineers. 

RIT will be preparing its engineering graduates to make an impact by combining engineering skills with the mindset of entrepreneurs, officials say, which also means going beyond solving technical problems to finding answers to societal issues.

The effort also recognizes the many opportunities engineers have to create value, says Matthew Marshall, associate dean in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering.

“The KEEN network is comprised of engineering faculty who have developed highly innovative approaches to integrating entrepreneurial-minded learning into their courses,” he says. “Many RIT faculty are interested and motivated to leverage the resources that the network provides to transform engineering and engineering technology courses at RIT using entrepreneurial-minded learning, and to build on our strong tradition of excellence in undergraduate education.”

Marshall is part of a core group from RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering and the College of Engineering Technology, coordinating the university’s KEEN Network participation toward that type of transformative learning, the university says. 

More than 50 faculty have participated in KEEN workshops to learn about the organization’s framework. This fall, these instructors will be incorporating different approaches across RIT’s engineering and engineering technology degree programs.

“The focus of KEEN is creating engineers who combine technical mastery with an understanding of how to create value for society and their companies. This aligns extremely well with RIT educational goals, which reach beyond career-focused education,” says Michael Eastman, associate dean of RIT’s College of Engineering Technology. 

The KEEN framework is based on 3Cs of educational outcomes: curiosity, where students demonstrate curiosity about the world and explore a contrarian view of accepted solutions; connections, where they integrate information to gain insight, and assess and manage risk; and creating value, where students identify unexpected opportunities to build value and learn along the way. KEEN’s mission: “To graduate engineers with an entrepreneurial mindset so they can create personal, economic and societal value through a lifetime of meaningful work.”

Partners in the KEEN network, like RIT, engage with each other, sharing best practices and curricula development related to this form of instruction. S. Manian Ramkumar, dean of the College of Engineering Technology, and Doreen Edwards, dean of the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, view the partnership as a way for RIT to not just be a test bed for new approaches but also to gather data to support the efficacy of these approaches.

Is the entrepreneurial mindset a result of nurture or nature? Are there clear benefits when it comes to integrating it into curricula? To help answer those questions, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship has developed the Entrepreneurial Mindset Index—a tool to measure attitudes, behaviors and beliefs associated with being an entrepreneur. 

In a report last year, NFTE shared results of a study to establish EMI as a reliable instrument to measure entrepreneurial mindset. The findings provide suggestive evidence that growing entrepreneurial mindset may have a positive effect in getting youth to see entrepreneurship and self-employment as a possible career path and something that can be learned and developed, the report states. While the intent to start a business doesn’t necessarily translate directly into action, NFTE contends it offers a pathway and potential for more entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial behavior. For employers, this could be a boon. 

Developing a smart, curious and engaged workforce is integral to RIT’s mission. Cultivating self-starters could reap benefits for the university and the Rochester community.

On Sept. 17, RIT will host Douglas Melton, program director of the Kern Family Foundation, sponsor of the KEEN Network, for an event titled “Powerful Stuff: An Entrepreneurial Mindset Built on Critical Thinking.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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