Fostering an Entrepreneurial Mindset in Engineers

Lawrence Tech

“We can’t change the students if we don’t change ourselves,” said Lawrence Technological University provost Maria Vaz. Six years ago, when Dr. Vaz took over as provost of the Detroit engineering school, she observed the need to infuse leadership and an entrepreneurial mindset across the curriculum.

Vaz launched an effort that “changed 75% of our courses” and was supported with  workshops for faculty that helped them to  “start thinking differently.” Vaz also held workshops for the senior leaders and the board to ensure they understood the change process.

The infusion of entrepreneurship was supported by a grant from the Kern Family Foundation.  According to Jim Rahn, president of the foundation, said Lawrence Tech “really embraced the program making it mission central.”  Their goal is to prepare students  “not only to compete within an industry but to lead it.”

Helping engineering students learn how they can make a difference is a big idea.  Historically there has been little about the plug and crank of engineering programs that fostered an entrepreneurial mindset. That’s changing at 19 universities as a result of an initiative of the Kern Family Foundation.

The Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN) a network of U.S. universities that “strive to instill an entrepreneurial mindset in undergraduate engineering and technology students.”  KEEN aims to graduate engineers who will contribute to business success.

A new study from Deloitte Growth Enterprise Services supports the idea that entrepreneurially minded individuals and companies are essential to economic growth. A Deloitte exec observed, “entrepreneurial behavior matters to performance, and any company, regardless of its size, can adopt the kind of entrepreneurial approaches that can help them outperform across a variety of metrics.”  (To learn more, read the original study here, and for coverage by The Wall Street Journal, click here.)

Rahn said there were two keys to success, “You need campus leadership to make important and you need faculty to make it happen.” The best performing of the 19 sites seem to have entrepreneurial mindset baked into their DNA–KEEN just grants permission, creates access, or reinforces best practices.

In addition to Lawrence Tech, University of Dayton, Gonzaga, and St Louis University take entrepreneurship seriously include  Progress can be difficult at bigger schools.

Kern takes a hands on approach to grantmaking.  When I was at the foundation last month, a team from Bucknell University was on site for a two day planning retreat.

Rahn looks for several forms of evidence of programmatic success.  First, on a campus visit, Jim hopes to see visual cues and hear examples of entrepreneurial mindset in student conversations.  Next, he looks for programmatic changes:

  • Curriculum: entrepreneurship integrated into all programs and perhaps a major and minor in entrepreneurship;
  • Co-curricular: internships and work experiences; and
  • Extra-curricular: clubs and activities.

The foundation has also been pleased with the level of sharing across network. When I talked to Dr. Vaz last week, she was hosting a curriculum innovation workshop for nine KEEN schools focused on fluid mechanics and thermodynamics.

KEEN is high on the list of philanthropic programs quietly making a big difference on college campuses. Dr. Vaz said it has “completely changed the way we educate our students.”

This blog was first submitted to Huffington Post. Kern Family Foundation is a former client of Getting Smart.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Doug Melton

I just ran across this article. Well done! Globalization and the recent economy have created a wake-up call for undergraduate engineering programs across the nation. Given the fact that the US represents about 4.5% of the global population, there is definitely a need to produce exceptional engineering talent that can create long term value and national prosperity.
Everyone I speak to about the KEEN Program agrees upon a desire to produce talent beyond the journeyman engineer who acts as merely an "design order filler". However, many universities find themselves bridled with a paradigm that eschews a broad-minded approach to engineering in favor of the old standby, teaching only technical rigor; an approach that is comfortable to many existing faculty members and program structures.
Indeed, Lawrence Tech's (and others) success with the KEEN Program has been because of their leadership and faculty community that are visionary. Rather than being comfortable in the higher ed models for engineering of the last 30 years, they are looking ahead to the next 30.
Doug Melton
KEEN Program Director


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks for your program leadership Doug. I enjoyed talking to Dr Vaz at Lawrence Tech--wow, love what I heard from them.

Debbie Ruston

Excellent, entrepreneurship has never been more required than in today's changed economy. We must start educating all youth to stop relying on employers to provide their work, and help them develop an entrepreneurial mindset to become self reliant.

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