Well-rounded engineering and computer science graduates enter the workforce prepared for success
Engineering students at Ohio Northern University graduate well-versed in the technical knowledge and skills their field requires. But today’s society requires engineers to have more than just their technical abilities if they truly want to make an impact in their jobs and on the world. To that end, the T.J. Smull College of Engineering is working to ensure that its graduates are able to communicate their ideas, collaborate with others and approach their work with an entrepreneurial mindset.
An entrepreneurial mindset is something the College of Engineering tries to instill in its students just as much as any mathematical equation or engineering process. It is the mentality that allows individuals to understand where their work fits into their company and industry so that they can identify avenues for advancement and impact more quickly. For engineers – or any professional, really – an entrepreneurial mindset is crucial to making an impact in the marketplace. Aside from sheer technical knowledge, a professional must be curious, dig deeper, make connections to unearth the problems that exist in their field and come up with innovative solutions that will create value.
Since 2005, the college has embraced this mindset with help and guidance from the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN), created by the Kern Family Foundation. ONU is among the 29 partner institutions of the KEEN network, all of which are focused on cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset among undergraduate engineering students. The college just recently earned the 2016 KEEN Outstanding Institution Award, and Eric Baumgartner, outgoing dean of the College of Engineering, received the 2016 Outstanding Dean Award. For Baumgartner, embracing this mindset makes so much sense for ONU, since it encompasses principles the college has always valued.
To me, it’s just part of who we are,” Baumgartner says. “It’s not foreign to us to be engaging in the classroom, have project-based learning and have active collaborative learning. It just fits beautifully with what we’re about anyway.
Dr. John-David Yoder, incoming dean of the College of Engineering, is a prominent player in ONU’s involvement with KEEN and has been involved from the very beginning. He believes that professionals can make the maximum impact by not being limited to the status quo.
"The engineer with an entrepreneurial mindset is thinking about which problems to solve instead of just how to solve the problem,” he says. “You can have a career as an engineer and never do any of that, but that’s really going to limit your impact.”
Yoder’s goal in teaching this approach is to “make it invisible” so that the principles are seamlessly integrated into the college’s curriculum and, therefore, into the minds of its students. In fact, the idea has become so embedded into the college’s paradigm that it is even a factor in evaluating potential new faculty.
When it comes to teaching students to have an entrepreneurial mindset, the college is using KEEN’s guiding principles, commonly referred to as the 3C’s: curiosity, connections and creating value. To see how these 3C’s are manifested in real time, all you have to do is take a look at the students.
Innovators of Ohio Northern (ION) is a perfect example. Founded roughly two years ago, this student organization was born out of a shared desire to improve the physical environments where students learn. The catalyst came into play when several students decided the Freshman Design Studio in the Biggs Engineering Building needed an innovative redesign, since its environment was not conducive to open collaboration between engineering students outside of class. Just as they were taught in the classroom, aligning with KEEN’s principles, the students had identified a problem, and they did not hesitate to take the initiative and create a practical solution.
The initiative sparked a two-week process that put the entrepreneurial mindset into action. Multiple groups of students were asked to draft their own designs for the remodel, support the key aspects of their design with reasoning and then pitch these ideas to Baumgartner, who acted as the client.
Following the pitches, Baumgartner gave constructive feedback to each of the groups, and it was collectively decided to integrate one key aspect from each group’s draft design into the final design. The students then had to work within a stated budget and build the new design in the remainder of the two-week timeframe they were given.
It was, in essence, an exact replication of a constructive-design effort that would take place in an actual workplace. It proved to be the perfect opportunity for the students to showcase the skills learned in the classroom and put them into action in a real-life scenario, and the best part was that the whole process was student-led. They responded to and set into motion what had been instilled in them from the beginning of their time at ONU – an entrepreneurial mindset. Of course, this work was partially supported by the Kern Family Foundation through ONU’s participation in KEEN.
Curiosity, the first of the 3C’s, was involved from the start, as the students had to identify what wasn’t working for the space as it was before. Then came connections, the second C, demonstrated when the students pooled their knowledge together and connected their research and ideas to draft designs. Creating value was perhaps the biggest piece, as the students had to make sure their ideas for change would, in fact, improve the space for students. The entire project allowed them to walk through a process many of them will undergo again and again during their professional careers.
At the root of the project’s origins and execution was the college’s KEEN-focused curriculum, seamlessly fortifying students’ foundations in a way that is nearly invisible to them yet immensely impactful.
I think ONU actually does help bring out those character traits: curiosity, connections and creating value,” says Adam Berry, a junior mechanical engineering student from Brunswick, Ohio, and a leading member of ION. “In your freshman design course, you basically touch on all three of them without even knowing it, and you just continue to build on it in each class.
But the college’s KEEN-focused curriculum goes further than just the positive conceptual impact on students’ mindsets; it produces concrete results. The College of Engineering continues to distinguish itself as one of the finest engineering programs in the nation. In its 2017 Best Colleges rankings, U.S. News & World Report ranks the College of Engineering 31st nationally among programs that offer the bachelor’s or master’s as the highest degree. This is the ninth time in the last 10 years that the College of Engineering has been ranked as a top-50 program. Its graduates are highly regarded, as evidenced by the 97 percent placement rate of its most recent graduating class.
It all just goes to show that when ONU engineering students graduate, they are ready to take their place not only as members of the workforce, but also as impactful leaders able to work and collaborate with the best and brightest in their fields.
“When we graduate, we’re there to become a part of our workplace community,” says Berry. “We’re prepared; we’re professional; and we’re ready to communicate, collaborate and learn with the 10-year, the 20-year, the 30-year experienced professional.”
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