Colleges are returning to normal operations, and many have begun to offer in-person classes once again. But are they prepared to teach students how to navigate post-pandemic life? Or how to get a job in an economy fundamentally changed by COVID-19?
As professors of engineering and entrepreneurship, and authors of a new book on teaching entrepreneurial thinking to college students, we have studied how entrepreneurial skills can improve students’ confidence, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication.
Such curriculum is a staple in business schools, especially for students who want to start a company. But it has the potential to benefit all students – including majors in engineering, agriculture and even the arts.
Graduates who develop an entrepreneurial mindset learn to habitually and intuitively recognize new opportunities and create value within an organization. This value could be new product development or related to continuous improvement, like implementing a more ergonomic workspace to combat healthy and safety issues. These entrepreneurial skills leave graduates better prepared to enter today’s workforce and solve the complex challenges raised by the pandemic.
Think like an entrepreneur
The entrepreneurial mindset is defined as the inclination to discover, evaluate and exploit opportunities. For example, an employee with an entrepreneurial mindset might recommend ideas to improve a company’s general cost savings, or focus on improvements related to quality, productivity or safety.
Students can use these skills in four key ways: to start a new business, to bring value to their employer, to address major societal challenges and to improve their personal life. Major societal challenges might include ending hunger or reversing climate change, while a personal application of the entrepreneurial mindset could involve making a career change.
Rise of entrepreneurial education
Entrepreneurial training has long helped graduates succeed in business and technology. The University of Michigan was one of the first to offer a course in entrepreneurship as early as 1927. However, the real growth in entrepreneurial education began in the 1970s, despite being in the midst of an economic downturn.
In 1975, there were only about 100 college majors, minors or certificates in entrepreneurship throughout the United States. Today, more than 3,000 colleges and universities throughout the world have courses and programs related to entrepreneurship.
In these courses, students learn how to validate a business model, interview potential customers and pitch an idea to investors and decision-makers. The goal is to learn how to identify the intersection between meeting customer desires and optimizing their own business capabilities.
Such training works.
Research shows that developing behaviors linked with entrepreneurial thinking is valuable, if not vital, for long-term business success. Entrepreneurship training helps students to better communicate, collaborate and solve problems. In short, it allows students to better understand and implement activities that generate value within and across organizations.
And yet, despite these benefits, most universities offer entrepreneurial education simply as an option for students specifically interested in business.
Entrepreneurship for all majors
However, an entrepreneurial approach to curriculum could benefit all courses and university majors.
Take, for example, engineering majors.
Typically, a company’s marketing department will study consumer trends to identify products and needs. The marketing department then expects engineers to obey their orders without questioning the problem at hand.
But entrepreneurially minded engineers could be involved in the process from the beginning. This is what we explored in our previous book, which focused on how to integrate engineering and entrepreneurship education. Being able to help identify problems and recognize new opportunities leaves engineers better prepared to identify and solve problems that arise while designing certain products.
Within the liberal arts and humanities, design and media majors can also develop their entrepreneurial mindsets in order to be better prepared for entering the gig economy as independent contractors.
For example, photographers, book illustrators and graphic designers can be trained not just on how to make great art according to theory and books, but how to sell great art.
The pandemic highlighted the importance of entrepreneurial training in the health sciences. Nurses and hospital staffs provided design insights and practical feedback to increase mask and ventilator production. They then worked to develop efficient COVID-19 testing and vaccination processes. The result? Many lives saved.
We believe it’s time to integrate the entrepreneurial mindset across the university – and truly prepare students to succeed in the post-pandemic world.