As an engineering educator at Rose-Hulman where our main focus is on undergraduate education, one of our priorities is to prepare our graduates to be immediate contributors in the workplace upon graduation and to be prepared for success over their careers as technical professionals. The placement rate for Rose-Hulman approaches 100 percent each year with our engineering graduates being in high demand for their technical skills and problem solving abilities. While problem solving skills will always be a desirable trait for engineering professionals, I see the need to prepare our graduates to also be value creators.
The complexity and competitiveness of business today requires that technical professionals be able to identify technical challenges and develop innovative solutions that provide value in a variety of business situations. The value creation is the key component. Engineers can often efficiently solve problems but they must also be able to identify the right problems and develop solutions that provide value to the relevant stakeholders.
So how do we teach our students to be innovators, entrepreneurial thinkers, and value creators? Let’s take a look at some recent developments in this regard.
Promoting an Innovative Mindset and Technical Skillset
Perhaps the first question to be considered is whether innovation and entrepreneurship skills can be taught? Is it nature or nurture; do some people just have them and others don’t? While we can’t teach everyone to be a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, the consensus is that a portion of these abilities are inherent but anyone can learn the basic skills.
The Kern Foundation through their KEEN network promotes the development of an ‘entrepreneurial mindset and technical skillset’ through a focus on three themes – curiosity, connections, and creating value. The KEEN network is a group of top universities focused on developing best practices in engineering education and instilling the entrepreneurial mindset in graduates.
Recent work on understanding the innovation competencies suggests that there are three aspects of being a successful innovator – expertise in a discipline, the ability to analyze complex systems, and mastery of the discovery skills.
Innovation in a field requires a technical and scientific background in it. Systems skills enable the innovator to decompose a complex system into sub components and reassemble them in new and unique ways. The discovery skills are the personal traits of questioning, observing, associating, networking, and experimenting that encourage the thinking and actions that enable successful new developments.
Using Canvas Tools to Support Teaching Innovation and Entrepreneurship
The introduction of ‘canvas’ tools is an important recent development in entrepreneurship and innovation education. A canvas enables a team to do conceptual prototyping of a business model or product before investing significant resources in development and testing. The Business Model Canvas was one of the first and the Innovation Canvas facilitates the joint development of a product and business model and is well suited for the technical entrepreneurship or innovation classroom or program.
A well designed canvas has several attractive features for educational use. First, the boxes on the canvas focus attention on the key components of the system being studied. Their use in a team setting encourages the practice of the discovery skills – networking, association, and experimentation. Use of the canvas also encourages the team to explore concepts, share ideas, and validate assumptions.
Recent efforts are also extending the educational activities beyond the classroom to include maker programs, living learning communities, student start-ups, and entrepreneurship in a social context.
These are exciting times in entrepreneurship and innovation education. Of all of the advances noted, the introduction of canvas tools is the most exciting and holds the most promise.
The IOI Partners team can help you prepare your teams to be innovators, entrepreneurial thinkers and value creators by balancing real-world learning experiences with expert instruction and these canvas tools.
Keeping all of these factors in mind, preparing our graduates to be value creators is essential for being successful in today’s complex and competitive business environment. Moreover, the key is not only identifying technical challenges but developing innovative solutions that provide real value to stakeholders.