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First-year Students Get Crash Course In Technical Entrepreneurship

Eighty-four first-year students in Clarkson University’s innovative interdisciplinary engineering and management (iE&M) degree program had barely settled into their dorm rooms this year when they embarked on a crash course in technical entrepreneurship.

The students were given a yearlong project to design customized dormitory furniture that could be used in the eight student residence hall room options available at Clarkson.

“We had to design, develop and then build scale prototypes of the furniture, perform market analysis and patent research, develop financial forecasts and market strategy, and formulate a business plan,” said Michael C. O’Laughlin, a freshman from Brockport, N.Y. “We then delivered presentations for research and developing funding to a panel of investors.”

O’Laughlin and his fellow classmates were enrolled in a two-semester course designed for iE&M majors that challenges first-year students to research, develop, build, test and market a product for potential retail sales.

The challenging course is designed specifically for freshmen to give new iE&M majors an understanding of the benefits in the workplace of the interdisciplinary major and a solid foundation for the business, engineering, math and science classes that will follow over the next three years.

“Taking a technical problem from concept to design to building a ‘working’ prototype, all the while developing a business strategy for commercialization in only nine months allows them to experience, on a smaller scale, the real challenges that they will face in their careers when they graduate after four years,” said Michael Ensby, director of the iE&M program and an instructor of operations management and information systems at Clarkson. “We go 80 miles wide, a quarter-inch deep, and we go at the speed of light! But they learn a lot more when they go through the entire process themselves rather than by sitting in a lecture hall taking notes.”

O’Laughlin agrees. “I learned more in this one class than I could ever have imagined, including business principles, engineering principles, and time and problem management. I also learned the importance of knowing how to speak both business and engineering ‘languages’ in the world of technological innovation.  Above all, I learned the value of my iE&M degree.”

For the project, the students were broken down into 16 teams – two teams per room. One team focused on the bed/loft and the second team handled the other furniture items. The teams worked on the designs and research and cost analyses in the fall, and in the spring created the prototypes and developed marketing plans. Late last month the students made professional presentations before a board of investors that included local business people and bank representatives. The goal of the presentations was to secure funding for additional research and testing of the product.

"The exercise was a valuable opportunity for the students, one that I wish I had been able to have before starting our businesses,” said Bob Penski, a founder and owner of Penski Inc., a firm specializing in human resources and personnel services in northern New York and a member of the board of investors.  “It gave the students an understanding of the business development process and the need to integrate diverse expertise in planning and developing the business.”

Steve Thornton, assistant vice president and branch manager of North Country Savings Bank, who also served on the board of investors, agreed.  “Based on the quality of the presentations and expectations of the course, it is clear to me that this program not only prepares young adults for future jobs or careers, it prepares them to take a closer look at life’s challenges and opportunities. Students receive top-notch instruction coupled with experiences of real-world projects that require teamwork, leadership selection, and problem-solving skills. This is the program I would have selected for myself 25 years ago.”

The iE&M curriculum constitutes an interdisciplinary education which is built upon Clarkson's strengths in engineering and management and is designed to create technical leaders and innovators. The program offers a balanced preparation involving course work in the major disciplines of engineering, math and sciences, management, marketing, humanities, and social sciences. The engineering courses taken are not survey courses but problem-solving courses in mechanical and electrical engineering, coupled with the entire foundation of the business curriculum.

A distinctive feature of the course is its relationship with corporate sponsors. Companies such as Pratt & Whitney, Carrier Corporation, Otis Elevators, and Silicon Power have provided financial and technical support in the past.

“Today, companies that succeed are casting off old organizational structures to facilitate new ways of working,” said Ensby. “The most effective methods are collaborative, project-based, and dynamic. And they require employees who are ‘system thinkers.’ Graduates from the iE&M bachelor's degree program at Clarkson bring that broad perspective to every job.”

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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