Learning by Doing

March 29, 2010

BALTIMORE – Teaching entrepreneurship has become one way for colleges to help local economies. Creating degree programs focused on the acquisition of business-savvy skills without a unifying theme, however, is often a difficult sell with both professors and students. Without creating new degrees, one community college has achieved success in the classroom and spawned many a student-run business in its area by encouraging faculty to embed entrepreneurship into their traditional curriculum.

At this week’s meeting of the League for Innovation in the Community College, officials from Cayuga Community College, in New York, shared with interested attendees the successes of its relatively new entrepreneurship initiative. The project got its start in 2007, when Cayuga endowed what is believed to be the first chair of entrepreneurship at the community college level. It also received grant funding from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which champions entrepreneurial education, to jump-start the project. The next year, changes were made to the existing curriculum.

Looking at other institutions that had had problems enrolling students in courses specific to entrepreneurship and finding faculty to teach them, Cayuga officials set out to revitalize its curriculum one professor at a time. College officials did not demand that all professors integrate some kind of entrepreneurial or “experience learning” aspect into their courses. Instead, they sought out those instructors who had an interest in experimenting with the idea or were drawn by other incentives.

“If they can produce a project that will engage students in entrepreneurial activity, we’ll find the resources to support them, either through a purchase, with time to plan, stipends or equipment,” said Daniel Larson, Cayuga president.

College faculty, then, submit mini-grant proposals to the entrepreneurship chair, who then approves or modifies them. Larson added that benefits such as stipends and the ability to count a period of planning per semester as part of their course load have won over many skeptical faculty members.

“There are many younger faculty who come in with different perspectives and want to try this,” Larson said. “Still, if there are people who aren’t interested or say they don’t believe in this, they just don’t come to us for these grants, so we don’t hear from them.”

Some of the projects proposed by faculty are more obvious than others. For instance, media and telecommunications students have since founded and run a record label and a video production company on campus, the latter of which has released two local tourism films that are sold in the area. Studio art and design students created promotional materials, including t-shirts and tote bags, for a local art museum that was in search of branding assistance. In addition, marketing students have helped students in all disciplines with advertising their products.

For the time being, any profit produced by the student-run businesses goes back into a fund to help maintain them, although some students do receive modest stipends for their work.

Larson estimates that about a third of the college’s faculty have embedded an entrepreneurial aspect into their classes or are in the process of planning to do so in the near future. Still, there are some doubters, especially in subjects for which there is no obvious direct practical application.

“We do have a lot of faculty who love their discipline but don’t see how other applications of it could work,” said Deborah Moeckel, vice president of academic and student affairs at Cayuga. “When I had discussions with an English professor friend of mine, she said, ‘It’s a classical discipline. It’s abstract. How can you put this experimental idea into this?’ Still, when I can convince someone who has that classically trained point of view that this will provider a richer experience for their students and that it will help them appreciate it more, they get excited.”

Though she said that those in the humanities and social sciences have been slow to respond to this call for entrepreneurship, Moeckel did note a few examples: An English class is writing copy for other students and local business, and a psychology class is working with a local advocacy service for sexual assault victims. For these disciplines, Moeckel said professors respond better to the term “experiential learning” rather than entrepreneurship.

Cayuga officials expect that one day they will be able to say that every student who attends their institution will take a course that has an entrepreneurial aspect. Still, they say that they would never mandate that professors integrate something of this sort.

“This is a persuasion thing,” Moeckel said. “You’re not going to beat them over the head with it because they won’t do it. We only want people to do this because they think it’s a good idea.”

Eventually, Moeckel argued, integrating something of this nature into a course at Cayuga will mirror the desire faculty now have for teaching online; it did not appeal to all faculty at first, but it eventually gained currency.

Not only do Cayuga officials believe their initiative is improving the business marketability of their students, they believe it is helping to improve the slumping local economy. Among the more popular and hyped program ideas to cross Larson’s desk: a program in wine studies.

A group of faculty and local vineyard owners are lobbying to turn a popular, but non-credit, wine course into a two-year degree program to help feed workers into upstate New York’s wine country. Students in the program, in the entrepreneurial spirit, would work for local vineyards and run a wine institute at the college.

“We’ve got to reinvent the upstate economy,” Larson said. “Instead of saying, ‘Who’s going to move in? Who’s going to create the next big thing?’ we’re focusing on local businesses. That’s what this is all about here. Not big business, small business.”

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