The Entrepreneurial Engineer

The undergraduate offerings at Stanford University’s School of Engineering could be engaged in a tug of war.

On one side is the foundation of math, science and major-specific courses students need to earn a degree now, or four years from now. On the other, the skills, curiosity and bent toward problem solving that students will need in their first job and in the job they get 20 or 40 years into their careers.

May 14, 2010

The undergraduate offerings at Stanford University’s School of Engineering could be engaged in a tug of war.

On one side is the foundation of math, science and major-specific courses students need to earn a degree now, or four years from now. On the other, the skills, curiosity and bent toward problem solving that students will need in their first job and in the job they get 20 or 40 years into their careers.

But, with a rope between them, the battle would end up a draw, at least in the eyes of James D. Plummer, who has been the school’s dean since 1999. “What we’re trying to do in the engineering school is … taking the traditional picture of an engineering classroom,” he said at a university faculty meeting earlier this year, pointing at a black and white photo of students taking notes in a lecture hall, “and turning it into something that looks a little more like this” -- a man, in vivid color, bungee jumping over craggy terrain.

Students still learn the basics, just as they would have back in the era of black-and-white film, but they’re also given a chance to at least consider intellectual bungee jumping. “We can’t just teach the things that students need to know now,” Plummer says. “The half life of information in engineering is three, four, five years, so much of what a student learns now will be obsolete only a few years down the line.”

Over the course of their careers, current students will probably end up with jobs requiring expertise that can’t yet be imagined. The undergraduate engineering curriculum’s emphasis on current state-of-the-art technical knowledge must be complemented with an openness to change, he says. “We need to teach our students to be lifelong learners, to be able to keep updating themselves to be the best they can possibly be throughout their careers.”

This mission, balancing knowledge and skills, is a departure from the cram-it-all-in mentality that undergraduate engineering programs -- at Stanford, and nationally -- subscribed to, Plummer says, until the Accrediting Board of Engineering and Technology began implementing more holistic standards for accreditation in the late 1990s.

The standards, Engineering Criteria 2000, allow engineering schools to “be less conservative and risk averse,” says Michael Milligan, ABET’s executive director. “Programs can be unique, innovative, fulfilling the needs of their constituents.”

He adds: “Instead of us going and counting numbers of credit hours in each area, we rely on outcomes that are developed by the profession … and each institution can add its own outcomes.”

Nonetheless, Plummer still worries about people who are “basically, bean counters,” as he characterized them at the faculty meeting earlier this year. “Historically, we have always been on the edge of not being accredited because we have pushed as far as we could,” he said. Though ABET's criteria have evolved, “the problem is that the visitors who come and actually evaluate the programs are still very often bean counters.”

So, rather than giving up on the bean-counting basics, Plummer frames them as just one component of the “T-shaped people” he’s trying to educate. The base is “deep technical education, we’re certainly not backing away from that,” he says. The crossbar of the “T” is “a set of skills that we think are really important to our graduates throughout their careers” -- innovation, creativity, an entrepreneurial sense.

Building the base of the “T” is pretty onerous. Engineers must take a year’s worth of math and science courses, three introductory courses in various engineering disciplines and a course on “technology in society.” Depending on the major, the school’s requirements total between 100 and 119 of the 180 credits needed to earn a Stanford bachelor’s degree (and even more credits are taken up by the university’s general education requirements).

Stanford's engineering school has for decades been considered one of the nation's best, its history intertwined with the development of Silicon Valley. Though plenty of graduates (and drop-outs) went on to found or staff technology companies, it wasn't until about 15 years ago that faculty started thinking about teaching students to be innovators and entrepreneurs.

“Stanford’s an incredibly innovative and entrepreneurial place," says Andrea Goldsmith, a professor of electrical engineering who is also chair of the Faculty Senate. "People create a vision and get a bunch of like-minded people together. It rubs off on our students.”

Though freshmen take “a lot of basic courses to learn what they need to know in math and physics,” she says, “we can still give them a taste of what they can do as engineers.”

She often teaches a freshman seminar called “The Art and Science of Engineering Product Design,” which includes trips to Google and the design firm IDEO, lectures on successful products, and a team-based project. In 2006, students designed a waterproof cell phone, a dorm powered by green energy and a website that allowed users to access their own personal preferences on any public computer.

That early taste of innovation during freshman year -- or at any time during an undergraduate’s course of study -- can “change a student’s perspective dramatically,” says Brad Osgood, the engineering school’s senior associate dean for undergraduate student affairs. “Students are interested in those things naturally and we’re just giving them the tools, as undergraduates, to begin to be entrepreneurial.”

Entrepreneurship, he adds, "is very much in the air these days." Administrators at several engineering schools have told him that they have in recent years looked to Stanford for inspiration in creating their own undergraduate programs.

Regardless of students’ career aspirations or eventual trajectories, entrepreneurship and innovation are “the skills that successful folks have,” says Tom Byers, a professor of management science and engineering, who has been part of several tech startups. “The leading edge technology stuff is important, sure, and so are the basics of engineering and science and math, this is a world that’s constantly changing but can be tackled with a certain set of tools that have to do with being creative and innovative.”

While the engineering school offers plenty of courses on innovation and entrepreneurship – some of which can count toward other requirements – much of the inventiveness he’s encouraging is “best learned outside the classroom, best learned by actually doing things, as opposed to listening to somebody lecture,” says Plummer. “It’s not a matter of substitution as you might think.”

Byers is co-director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, which he founded in 1995 to help connect undergraduates with internships at start-up technology firms. Since then, he says, it’s become Stanford’s “entrepreneurship center,” sponsoring competitions, conferences and weekly lectures by entrepreneurial leaders. It also offers about two dozen courses each academic year.

When he created the program, Byers says, it was among the first of its kind. Today, most institutions with an engineering school or a business school have some sort of center or program on entrepreneurship. Stanford's is primarily focused on research and teaching students skills beyond their majors, but at other institutions, entrepreneurship programs don't conduct much research but do award bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. "There's no one model that works for everybody," he says. "Different schools dial in different recipes."

STVP also runs the Mayfield Fellows Program, which selects 12 undergraduates each year to go through a three-quarter sequence of courses and a paid summer internship at a start-up company. “It’s really fun to try to build bridges between what practitioners do and what happens in an intellectual, scholarly place like Stanford,” Byers says. “We’re giving students a way to start to understand the ecosystem. These are really universal skills that will enable success or accelerate success no matter what a student ends up doing.” Students in the program have gone on to become lawyers, physicians, consultants, academics and all breeds of techie and start-upper.

Though Mayfield is a selective program, the engineering school has resisted the urge to cordon off entrepreneurship as its own field. “We have not created new majors for entrepreneurship,” Plummer says. “It would be a mistake to educate a few students rather than that all of our students get exposure to the horizontal part of the ‘T.’”

Byers is also considering what comes next in the evolution of the school's undergraduate curriculum. “Should courses or experiences on entrepreneurship and innovation be required? Should there be a certificate? It’s a really exciting part of the debate and I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet.”


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top