Engaging Innovators: 9 hands-on courses prepare the next generation of entrepreneurs

Gibson-course
Photo courtesy of the Center for Entrepreneurship

Last summer, sophomore Rachel Shuster had an opportunity to study in Tel Aviv, Israel at the Israel Summer Business Academy. The six-week course allows students to learn and hone their entrepreneurial skills by creating a product to bring to market. Rachel and her team spent their time researching and developing a new social media app. According to Rachel, this experience was unique because students were actually capable of creating something–not just learning about creating something.

Upon returning to the university, Rachel began to wonder if the minor in entrepreneurship was for her and enrolled in UC 270 (Entrepreneurial Creativity). This class, much like her experience in Tel Aviv, requires Rachel to be active in her learning–to do something.

UC 270 is lecture-based, but during discussion sections students break into teams and throughout the course of the semester will brainstorm, develop, research, and create a product or service. This type of experiential, engaged learning is the cornerstone of Michigan’s entrepreneurship curriculum, and is entirely dependent upon student participation, teamwork, and dedication–much like work at any start-up.

“The class depends on the effort you put into it. In other classes you have to study for exams and write papers, so obviously you have to work hard, but if you work hard in UC 270, you can come out of the class with a really great product that can potentially help the community, on a local or global scale,” says Rachel.

This approach to entrepreneurial learning was developed in part through a Campus-wide Entrepreneurship Education Task Force established in 2012 to scale and expand entrepreneurial education opportunities for all of Michigan’s undergraduates. The task force, made up of representatives from the Ross School of Business, College of Engineering, and College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, noted that “the payoffs in entrepreneurial education may well be the generation of sustainable businesses, but the more immediate value comes from elsewhere: an increase in student engagement, confidence, critical thinking, and collaborative skills.”  

A key ingredient of entrepreneurial education, as identified by the task force, is practical hands-on experiential learning through a two-course practicum — a requirement of the campus-wide minor in entrepreneurship. Since launching the minor last year, specialized practicum offerings have grown, giving students across campus an opportunity to practice entrepreneurial skills that will enable them to carve out creative, stimulating futures that offer economic security and the opportunity to contribute positively to society.

“Innovate Blue’s campus-wide curriculum committee iterated multiple times to create guidelines and criteria for practica development” said Innovate Blue director Oscar Ybarra. “This allowed room for the varied flavors from different schools and colleges to come through, but also ensures practica followed a more general set of processes and guidelines for practicing several skillsets.”

Dr. Ybarra says these skillsets, such as ideation and opportunity analysis, communication and persuasion, understanding user or customer needs, and determining basic financial feasibility, are skills students can take and apply to other aspects of their education.

“At its simplest it’s a framework for students to understand that to have impact in their own lives and the lives of others, they must understand that their aspirations must match their talents, assets, and resources along with market realities. This can apply to a new venture, driving change in an existing company, or in leading one’s way through this uncertain world,” he says.

LEARNING BY DOING

Dr. Matt Gibson, director of undergraduate programs at the College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship, teaches and helped establish one of the first entrepreneurship practicum (ENTR 411) courses at the university. An experienced entrepreneur himself, Gibson launched a biomedical company while in graduate school and went on to become a vice president at a start-up focused on developing drug delivery prior to his role at the university.

Gibson teaches two tracks of the entrepreneurial practicum course, allowing students both an entry level and more advanced immersive entrepreneurship experience. One of the first experiences students have in the practicum is “scrapbox ventures.” Students visit a local scrap store and with a $10 limit must make a product and sell it. They then use the money they earn to buy more supplies, generate more product, and grow the business. Students have made things like coasters, bracelets, wallets, and hair bows sold at football games (called “Bow Schembechlers”) were a particular hit.

Gibson says the idea isn’t that these products will turn into something scaleable, it’s that the students learn necessary entrepreneurial skills through the activity. “This is the first time most students ever really had to sell something. They get ownership over the process, because it was theirs, and it didn’t necessarily matter what they were selling,” he says.

The next stage gives students hands-on experience in customer discovery and at the last stage the “training wheels come off” and they’re given more freedom and ability to validate their idea and work on their venture. After this, many students enroll in the advanced practicum where they’re given the tools and resources, such as access to subject area experts in venture capital, market research and more, to hone their idea and grow their venture.

“Experiencing entrepreneurship is the only way you learn certain aspects of it,” says Gibson. “Students are taught to study and memorize most of the time. We try to give them experiences, and that’s what makes this different, and surprising for many students.”

Students taking entrepreneurship classes know that real educational value lies in putting what you’re learning to the test. This allows students to not only learn, but to create and experience. Those experiences can turn into a viable company–just look at AOE Med and Strapus Harness, both created in ES 212 (Entrepreneurial Business Basics) and currently headed for the market.

The approach to engaged learning is two-fold: allowing students to experiment and produce real products and businesses; and giving them the opportunity to witness and work with established, local entrepreneurs.

Here’s a look at several new entrepreneurial practicum courses offering an engaged learning experience to students.

SI 363: Information Innovations with iOS Mobile Devices

How many times have you heard someone say “I have an idea for an app!”? This practicum course means that the inspiration doesn’t have to end with the idea. Whether or not they know how to code, students in this course go through the steps to explore market value, develop the app and by the end have an actual prototype. They also get the chance to work directly with target customers and receive feedback from experts.

EXCEL Record Industry Workshop (ARTSADMN 406.007/506.007)

In the EXCEL Record Industry Workshop class, students learning about the recording industry by developing their own projects, like a student run record label tied to the School of Music, Theatre and Dance. So far since this inaugural class started, the students have had practice pitching their ideas to the class, and they’re now in the midst of honing in on ideas they’d like to turn into viable companies. “All of the ideas are tied to music in some way or shape, but are widely ranging. As the class progresses, they’ll be doing market research, testing whether or not these offerings are hitting a nerve, and launching publicly, hopefully with some fanfare attached!” says Professor Jeremy Peters. 

Creating Social Value through the Arts: A DIY Arts Practicum (ARTSADMN 406.006/506.006)

A second practicum offered through the School of Music, Theatre & Dance EXCEL Program brings together a variety of students, including business and art students, to focus on creating interactive art projects that raise awareness. Their first project is to develop interactive, site-specific campus arts interventions to engage passers-by in exploring student issues such as mental health, and the second project requires them to develop arts projects specific to underserved local populations and draft hypothetical grant proposals for actual grants offered in the state of Michigan.  According to Professor Tiffany Ng, “To complement such team projects, they are analyzing the effectiveness of innovative arts outreach and education events organized by UMS, the Kerrytown Concert House, and MOCAD in Detroit.”

The Full list of practicum courses offered by the University of Michigan include:

ARTSADMN 406 – Record Industry Workshop*
ARTSADMN 406 – Creating Social Value Through the Arts*
ENTR 411 – Entrepreneurship Practicum
ENTR 490.010 – Advanced Entrepreneurship Practicum
ES – Ross Entrepreneurship Practicum*
SI 363 – Information Innovations with iOS Mobile Devices*
UC 270 – Innovator’s Toolkit*
UC 270 – Interpersonal Entrepreneurship*
UC 270 – Translating Inventions to the Business World*
*indicate new this semester

“These classes really give you real-world value. You’re not going to take exams post-college, but you may pitch ideas, do market research, and create something, and that’s what these classes are teaching,” said Rachel Shuster.

Dr. Gibson agrees. “I strongly believe the entrepreneurial skills are widely applicable and can be applied to make a person more successful whether or not they are an entrepreneur,” he says.

By the end of this semester, students like Rachel will come out of their classes not only knowing more, but having done more. Several of these students will have viable products and continue to build their ventures as a result of these “real-world” classes, and all will gain entrepreneurial skills that will help them in the long run.

According to one student, “So often we focus primarily on grades in our classes that what we do becomes reciting, memorizing, and repetitively doing something that we don’t care about or we forget shortly after taking the class. The way the minor helps us to learn, though, is to expand our skills based on real tasks.”

Written by Hannah Gordon, Innovate Blue Student Associate.

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