Engineers Embrace Their Entrepreneurial Spirit

It takes a special kind of engineer to volunteer to leave their comfort zone and take on the challenge of thinking like an entrepreneur. In spring 2021, 42 students from all departments in the College of Engineering & Computer Science rose to the challenge and honed their abilities to innovate using the human-centered design process.

Stock image of student presenting

This first Innovation & Entrepreneurship Academy was entirely virtual, divided into five interactive sessions. Participating undergraduate and graduate students from all majors were represented, plus one faculty member. The Academy is the creation of Atul Teckchandani, associate professor of management at the Cal State Fullerton College of Business and Economics and the first Entrepreneur in Residence in the College of Engineering & Computer Science.

“Since I started as the ECS Entrepreneur in Residence, I have been trying different ways to help students think more entrepreneurially. The interest was varied – some workshops had strong attendance while others did not reach their attendance goal,” Teckchandani says. “I wanted to get in front of more students, especially students who are not seniors, and to offer students a way to go deeper into these ideas – much deeper than we could go in a single workshop.”

After brainstorming with various ECS faculty and staff and consulting with Dean Susan Barua, Teckchandani decided to assemble a five-session academy.

“The human-centered design process involves learning about the needs of the people you are trying to design a solution for, generating tons of ideas, building a bunch of prototypes and sharing each with prospective customers, and then working to bring your solution to market,” Teckchandani says. “This process is part of a family of tools and processes commonly known as ‘design thinking,’ which is the de facto approach used by companies worldwide to find innovative solutions to tackle their customers’ problems. As such, it was important to me that our students become familiar with this approach.”

Teckchandani and his collaborators knew students were busy and intentionally tried to structure the Academy such that it did not ask too much of them. In return for the students coming to each session and participating in the activities, they received a certificate of completion signed by Teckchandani and Dean Barua and had the opportunity to apply for two $2,500 scholarships sponsored by Pro-Dex.

The timing of the Academy appealed to Charles Ouyang, a first-year civil engineering graduate student. “I simply have an interest in everything,” Ouyang says. “So, when the world was innovating, responding to COVID and the challenges it presented, I wanted to hear what others thought.”

Ouyang viewed the Academy as an “investment in students” and “a laboratory to elevate our awareness of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

“Just like the lab courses in ECS, applying principles to controlled environments helps reinforce our learned skills,” he says. “I met great classmates and they helped shift my perspectives. I also felt my creative mind muscle flex as we went through the exercises.”

Honing Human-Centered Design Capabilities

The Academy’s five one-hour sessions focused on ways of coming up with innovative ideas by putting human needs first.

The first session focused on helping students understand what it means for an idea to be innovative and the importance of coming up with lots of ideas and it allowed participants to practice looking for solutions to a problem.

“This Academy offers perspectives to challenge your way of thinking, to help you become more innovative, and to teach you how all that ties into entrepreneurship.”

– Billy Xiao, first-year software engineering graduate student

“To help them build confidence in their ability to brainstorm solutions and be innovative, I had them do an activity in which I showed them a photo of a couple getting married and asked them to work in teams to find at least three interesting business ventures that affected the scene,” Teckchandani says. “Students would talk about wedding planners, decorators, photographers, caterers, etc., and I would ask them what problem each business venture was solving. Then we would do the activity again, but all the problems discussed were no longer allowed. Teams had to find business ventures that were solving different problems in order to spur their creativity – which it did.”

In the second phase of the exercise, students suggested ventures that could solve important but less common problems, such as helping couples find musicians and DJs for their event, save up for their honeymoon, make travel arrangements for guests and so on.

“Day one of the Academy is pretty much what sold me on it,” says Billy Xiao, a first-year software engineering graduate student. “Dr. T. was giving his introduction, describing how he got into his current role, his passion for educating people to be innovative and teaching entrepreneurship, and how engineering can help tackle day-to-day problems for individuals. This wasn’t something I got to learn during my undergraduate years, so being able to get back into a school setting again with industry experience offered new perspectives and opened my mind to new ideas.”

For session two, students were given an interview guide so they could interview each other about the challenges college students faced trying to focus on school during the pandemic.

In session three, students split into teams and participated in two interactive exercises. First, they shared key insights from the interviews, using online collaboration tools like Mural and Miro, two remote digital whiteboards, to consolidate all their insights on the same “virtual wall,” then talked through them to look for common themes to help convey the experiences, emotions, hopes, and desires of their target customers (i.e., college students who are attending school virtually). Second, they brainstormed solutions or components of a solution individually and posted their ideas on a second “virtual wall” before reviewing and voting on which idea or group of ideas they wanted to pursue as a team.

“When voting, they were asked to consider how excited they were about the idea, how innovative it felt compared to what was already out in the market, and how realistic it seemed in terms of implementation,” Teckchandani says.

In session four, students were asked to spend more time thinking about the problem they were solving, the key features of their solution, and the business model for this potential new venture.

During session five, they created their first mock-up – something that allowed them to communicate their solution to others and seek feedback. Each team was asked to create and to share a 30- to 60-second teaser video for their solution.

Empowering Engineers with Nontraditional Skills and Perspectives

Teckchandani says students came to the Academy because they wanted to complement their technical skills by better understanding the business side. Many also said they came to strengthen their hiring profile, excited that they could tell recruiters that they had participated in this unique experience.

“Engineering education has traditionally focused on technical skills. While those are vital, in order for an engineer to move up within an organization, they also need additional skills,” he says. “Being able to recognize problems that need solving and being able to come up with ways to solve these problems will help engineers stand out and be seen as future leaders within an organization.”

Xiao says he would recommend the Academy to other students.

“In addition to reinforcing timeboxing [allotting a fixed, maximum unit of time for an activity], it really challenged me to think outside the box and be more creative when posed with challenges that occurred in my environment,” Xiao says. “I’m not likely to start a business of my own anytime soon, but I am excited to take on challenges in my current work with more of a creative and innovative approach. I think engineers without any real work experience can benefit a lot from this. This Academy offers perspectives to challenge your way of thinking, to help you become more innovative, and to teach you how all that ties into entrepreneurship.”

Teckchandani was impressed by the Academy’s success, and the college will offer another human-centered design-focused Academy in fall 2021. The college is also planning additional academies in the future, in partnership with alumni leaders from L3Harris and RJE International, including one focused on communicating ideas more effectively and another on building resilience.

“At first, I was worried that we would not have enough students for one cohort. We ended up with three cohorts! It was a strong sign that students want to complement what they are learning in the classroom and that we should keep offering them ways to do so,” Teckchandani says.

He says he appreciated how involved the students were in all of the activities and how they gave it their all during each session.

“The human-centered design process is, in many ways, very much the opposite of how an engineer typically works. There are no formulas. It is fuzzy and nonlinear. Even though I know that many students felt that they were outside their comfort zone, they did their best to embrace and overcome this discomfort to learn from it. For that, I will be eternally grateful to each of them.”

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