Teaching Students to Become Innovators

Penn State Behrend in Erie encourages entrepreneurship

9 December 2016

To stay competitive, companies are looking for employees who have an entrepreneurial spirit to help them come up with ideas for new products or commercialize their scientific and engineering research. But engineering grads often lack that innovative mind-set, because few have been taught how to turn an idea into a marketable product. Universities barely have enough time to cover the fundamentals of engineering, let alone teach students to apply what they’ve learned (see my recent article on the state of engineering education).

“Industries, local communities, governments, and others are asking us to develop entrepreneurial leaders,” IEEE Senior Member Ralph Ford says. “They see these innovators as a way to grow their towns and cities economically.”

Ford is chancellor of Penn State Behrend in Erie. The four-year college offers a number of intertwined programs and initiatives that are giving students the skills and support they need to think like entrepreneurs and start their own companies. Those include the college’s research and technology center, Knowledge Park, where local startups and other companies work with students, faculty, and staff. There’s also the new Innovation Commons idea lab, maker space, and gathering spot for students, small businesses, and startups, and the school’s involvement in the Ignite Erie Industry and University Business Acceleration Collaborative, a network of educational, business, industrial, and community organizations that supports entrepreneurial initiatives by undergraduate and graduate students.

In this interview, Ford talks about the school’s open lab concept and provides more details about the Penn State Behrend programs.

What is the open lab concept?

Several years ago, Penn State Behrend began looking at how it could strengthen its connection with local industry. The school has state-of-the-art laboratory facilities. We thought about how to make those resources work for us in a practical way, so we opened them up to the outside world. For example, Behrend’s School of Engineering has the largest academic plastics processing lab in the United States, and Erie has a strong history of manufacturing, especially in plastics. Located in the northwestern part of the state, the town has several tool-and-die manufacturing foundries as well as companies serving the transportation industry. Nearly 18 percent of area residents work in the manufacturing sector—about double the U.S. national average.

Penn State Behrend serves as an open laboratory in that information and ideas flow both ways. Our strategy is built on the goals of attracting more companies to Knowledge Park; growing the practical learning experiences for our students through internships, co-ops, and design projects; and building opportunities for our faculty to conduct meaningful research. It’s a strategy about both helping industry make money from commercializing projects and educating students. I don’t believe the open laboratory strategy is a magic formula that could be applied to every school, but it’s working for us.

How does the partnership with Knowledge Park work?

Knowledge Park was built in 1998 with the goal of attracting new companies that wanted access to the university’s faculty expertise, student talent, and physical resources. We did well with the park initially, but we didn’t make a huge impact at first. That has changed considerably in the past few years for several reasons. Our college has a higher profile than it did 18 years ago; today, we offer 37 bachelor’s degree programs, five master’s degree programs, and four associate degree programs. More than 85 percent of the engineering faculty have worked in industry. Our faculty members are engaged in more than US $6 million in research annually—an increase of more than 50 percent since 2010.The college provides nearly $350,000 to support undergraduate student research.

The greatest success has been the result of a change in Penn State’s intellectual-property policy, which allows companies to own the IP from any research undertaken with their sponsorship. This policy is one of things that has really opened up discussions with industry: If they fund it, they can own it—no question about that.

Adjacent to the college’s School of Engineering, Knowledge Park has six buildings that house nearly 20 companies employing more than 500 people. Companies include Cybersonics, which develops medical devices that use ultrasonic energy, as well as GE Transportation, and Jameson Publishing. On any given day, there are people from industry in the classroom working with students and faculty. Industry partners are often surprised by the variety and amount of equipment used by students—which is also available to them. Some of the partner customers really like being connected with Penn State. The Erie community also likes that we bring in companies that offer high-paying jobs that otherwise might not come or remain here.

Manufacturing in the United States has been struggling and, because of that, so has Erie’s economy. One particularly bright spot has been this year’s opening of the college’s Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center in Knowledge Park. This facility features manufacturing and materials labs, prototyping and product design spaces, and a secure lab to meet government research requirements.

What is Innovation Commons?

It’s part maker space and part what we call an innovation beehive. The space, which is located on the first floor of the college’s Burke Center, which is home to Penn State Behrend’s colocated schools of engineering and business, has such equipment as 3-D printers, laser cutters, and computer-aided drafting. And it has office space for entrepreneurs. Patent attorneys offer their services for free to those who need advice on how to file an application. The facility is open to the public, and engineering students will show potential entrepreneurs and inventors how to use the equipment.

How is the Ignite Erie collaborative helping students gain entrepreneurial skills?

We’re working to expand on the open-lab success we’ve had with Knowledge Park by connecting students, faculty members, business and industry partners, and local entrepreneurs with one another. With the financial support of the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority, Penn State Behrend and another Erie educational institution, Mercyhurst University, are partnering to provide resources and support to boost small businesses and startups. The collaborative focuses on four areas: growing existing businesses; creating maker spaces where teams can develop and prototype new products; supporting student innovation teams that work to solve business challenges; and promoting networking events where students, faculty, industry leaders, and the local community can explore ideas, business models, and financing.

Many entrepreneurial communities have been built on a strong industrial base, which the Erie region has. We’re working to leverage that potential and bring the many resources of Penn State to bear on economic and community development while introducing tremendous value to the education of our students.

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