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Teaching entrepreneurship to engineering students

Universities generally have considered education about entrepreneurship at the university level a business school affair. But a new cooperative program started 18 months ago at Stanford University may change all that.

"We are addressing a different issue from the business schools. We are looking for ways to accelerate the transfer of technology and science into the economy, and teaching engineers entrepreneurship is one of the best ways to do this," said Thomas H. Byers, the consulting professor who directs the Technology Ventures Co-op program.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle, Byers summarized the goals and the first year's experience of the unusual program that not only provides a select group of Stanford engineering students with courses on entrepreneurship but also places them in summer jobs with top Silicon Valley startups.

Byers noted two lists of desirable intellectual skills that engineers will need in the 21st century ­ one compiled by the National Science Foundation and the other drawn up by the Boeing Company ­ and proposed that the majority of the items relate directly to entrepreneurship.

The NSF list, for example, included the ability to manage complexity and uncertainty; entrepreneurship and decision making; and problem formulation as well as problem solving. The Boeing list contain qualities such as: the ability to think critically and creatively as well as independently and cooperatively; flexibility ­ an ability and the self-confidence to adapt to rapid/major change; and profound understanding of teamwork.

"These are precisely the characteristics of effective entrepreneurial management, whether in startups or established firms," Byers said.

In its first year, the nine-month program selected 10 highly motivated seniors from electrical engineering, computer science, industrial engineering and mechanical engineering. The four women and six men and had an average GPA of 3.8 on a 4.0 scale.

The program also attracted a number of the hottest Silicon Valley startups, including Granite Systems, WhiteTree, IDEO Product Development, Tenth Planet and Diffusion. Most of these startups are developing new high-tech products, have 50 or fewer employees and less than $1 million in sales. The companies agree to pay the students a competitive wage and to spend a significant amount of time supervising them during the summer.

"Each of our students got multiple summer job offers," Byers said. "I even had to put a limit on the number of students any one firm could hire." The students took jobs ranging from circuit design and low-level engineering to strategic planning.

Although the on-the-job experience during the summer is the heart of the program, it also includes a preparatory course in spring quarter that includes management theory and case studies of startups. In the fall quarter, the students prepare formal presentations about their internships that they give to the group with their company bosses in attendance.

By all measures, the first year was a success, Byers said.

The students rated the program very highly. In a typical comment, computer science student Nolan Glanz wrote: "[the] benefits have far exceeded anything I could have imagined, ranging from learning about business and the nuances of high-tech startups, to meeting prominent Silicon Valley figures, to building lasting relationships with the other people in the program. It is amazing how much TVC has changed my life."

The employers appear to be equally enthusiastic. John Stossel, chief executive officer of Real World Solutions, wrote: "I am a big fan of the TVC program. I want to tell you that [Stanford] has put together an incredibly unique program that provides exceptional value for the students as well as participating companies." All the participating firms asked their students to continue working with them part time during the school year, and half of them offered the students full-time jobs in the future.

According the Byers, the long-term mission of the program is to influence engineering education nationwide. He and his colleagues are creating course curricula that they hope will lead to the creation of similar courses at other major engineering schools in the country.

"Everybody benefits when we expose future engineering and technology leaders to the entrepreneurial environment," Byers said. He quoted Jeffry Timmons' book New Venture Creation: "The entrepreneurial process will create a better world. It's not just about new company, capital and job formation, nor innovation, nor creativity, nor breakthroughs. It is also about fostering an ingenious human spirit and improving mankind."


By David F. Salisbury