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S. Walsh, B. Pittman, S. Hollar

NC State University (UNITED STATES)
By the time American students enter college, they have often been trained to score well on standardized tests at the expense of developing critical thinking skills that result from innovative learning experiences. The Engineering Entrepreneurs Program (EEP) at North Carolina State University has long offered an innovative approach to engineering education housed within a framework of entrepreneurship.

Any student may take the EEP three-course experience of developing their own idea into a working prototype with a business plan. Two 3-hour courses simulate the activities of start-up companies by providing experiences in all aspects of product development and investor funding. In the first course, students generate ideas, recruit teams, and determine a potential product. Then they validate their ideas by contacting real customers. They participate in 360˚ feedback activities based on pre-determined benchmarks. By the end of the semester, they have conducted both primary and secondary research that indicates the market potential of the product as well as preparing a virtual demonstration of their new product or service idea. In the second course, students focus on developing a working prototype and on preparing a business plan. Finally, teams make investor presentations to a professional audience.

Until the beginning of the Fall 2009 academic year, the third course, a 1-hour course, served primarily to provide “student employees” to the student start-up companies and to provide a springboard for students who wished to continue in the other two classes in leadership roles with product ideas that they were passionate about. This year, however, these students participated in a project separate from their student employee roles. The purpose of the project was to enable students to conduct primary research about a customer base, develop a product, and present it to that customer base. A second purpose of the project was to lay the groundwork for K-12 outreach in hopes of capturing, and nurturing, interest and talent related to entrepreneurship in young children.

Course instructors arranged for students to work with kindergarten students at a nearby elementary school. Students formed teams and observed the kindergartners in “center” time, which is play activities in small groups that provide fun learning experience with manipulatives, house-keeping, etc. Students then generated ideas for a toy for the children, going through relevant hypothesis activities about customer definition and product development. Each team built a toy and returned to the school to demonstrate it. The kindergartners played with each toy and voted on their favorite. Teams also presented their toys and experience to the students in the other two EEP courses.

The kindergarten project provided depth to the one-hour course by introducing the relationship between fully understanding the customer and building a successful product. It also provided experiences in team dynamics, technical expertise, and communication skills at a much earlier point in the EEP course sequence.