Promoting Entrepreneurial Skills Through Senior Design Projects
Two faculty from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of North Carolina at charlotte received a grant from VentureWell to develop a course in innovation and entrepreneurship. They offered the course in the spring 2013, spring 2014 and spring 2015 semesters. This course consisted of graduate and undergraduate students from several disciplines working on multiple projects; each project was unique, formed out of student or faculty ideas.
The faculty teaching this course developed a strategy to nourish the innovation and entrepreneurship in young engineer by allowing all engineering majors to register for the course and by forming multidisciplinary teams that worked on the innovation of the idea, developed an executive summary of the project and looked into the financial support of the invention. Each team had to analyze the opportunity at hand, provide a thorough market analysis, and write a report about the project (from inception to commercialization). Students on each team were encouraged to continue to work together in the College of Engineering Senior Design I and Senior Design II courses with the intent of them being able to commercialize the design.
Part of the faculty effort was to build and promote a culture of innovation among engineering students; therefore as a follow up from the course offering in the spring 2013 the faculty supported two projects during their capstone senior design courses for the fall 2013-spring 2014 semesters with a strong plan for commercialization of the product. These students were motivated, self-driven and excited about their projects and the possibility of launching a business successfully by using our program, and taking advantage of the resources available to them from our University’s Office of Technology Transfer. This support allowed these two teams to design and prototype the product during the fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters.
These two teams received multiple cash awards while competing in the State of North Carolina Social Entrepreneurship Conference and the Ventureprise business competition. One team built a company which is still active even after the participants graduated with their Baccalaureate degrees. Thus far the faculty have supported four entrepreneurial teams in the capstone senior design courses. While the entrepreneurship course gives a chance for our students to work with a faculty on the development of a new product, linking it to the capstone senior design course strengthens the foundation for our engineering students to embark on new opportunity when feasible. This combination helped our students identify opportunities to implement all ideas, helped individual student learn about managing business growth, and provided methods of using critical thinking.
The Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship course linked with our senior design capstone courses empowers our graduates to confront challenging business cases and to seek solution from a business perspective. Our goal is to encourage our engineering students to work with business students from the inception of an entrepreneurship project until commercialization. This paper describes in detail the successes of these entrepreneurial Senior Design teams. P ge 26275.2 Introduction and Literature Review Past research shows the need for an educational shift in the general engineering curricula from a purely technical focus to one that will add entrepreneurial skills to complement their undergraduate engineering major.1 Angela Shartrand, et al.2, in “Technology Entrepreneurship programs in U.S. Engineering Schools:
An Analysis of programs at the undergraduate level” examined programs and courses offered at 340 ASEE member schools in the U.S. Their research showed that “entrepreneurship education is available in at least half of the engineering programmed examined and has been integrated within the engineering program in approximately 25% of these programs”2. We asked ourselves the question “do engineer need entrepreneurship skill?” Based on the article by Ochs, et al.3, we read that “The engineer as inventor is certainly not new. Since we recognized that many innovative products that we enjoy today were created by engineers”4; faculty from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte sought a mechanism to encourage innovation by students. We were attracted by the availability of funds from VentureWell, formerly known as National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) for Universities2,5 in the support of course development in Innovation and entrepreneurship. In the fall of 2011 the faculty researched other engineering colleges with entrepreneurship courses, prepared and submitted a proposal for a grant from VentureWell to support a new course in entrepreneurship.
They received a grant in the spring of 2012 to support the activity of developing this course while supporting innovation in the college. Sullivan, et al.6, indicated that a course in innovation will be considered successful if the students experience the process of invention and innovation by saying “understanding the customer and market are critical for an invention to find a niche”6 students should understand that “their inventions must reach the market in order to have an impact on the world”6. Faculty Offered a Course in Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Two faculty developed the course material and offered the course for the first time in the spring 2013 semester; enrollment was nineteen students (sixteen undergraduate and three graduate students)1. We formed five project teams where each group worked on an innovative technical product. A part of the course required all teams to submit an internal VentureWell “E-Team” proposal; group presented their proposal in an oral presentation defending their approach to the faculty and class.
The instructors of the class selected the three top projects and assist the teams by submitting their proposals to the VentureWell E-Team Competition in May 2013. None of these projects were funded; but the teams received positive review. We followed up to that by funding the top two teams to design and prototype the product during the fall 2013 and spring 2014 in their senior design capstone courses. The Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship course was designed to be valuable for engineering students who plan to embark on the process of innovation and entrepreneurship while practicing in the field of engineering. Entrepreneurship concepts introduced in this course helped students identify opportunities to implement these ideas.
This course helped students learn how to manage business growth, and provide them with the methods and skills to use critical thinking. Through lectures, case studies, reading materials and potential projects that P ge 26275.3 cover ventures growth, this course provided students with the necessary background to successfully identify business opportunity, and to embark on forming a new enterprise. In this course we introduced the students to many concepts such as identifying business opportunities, finding innovative and competitive strategies and how to submit for a small business grant or other types of grants.
At the beginning of the semester we solicit entrepreneurship ideas from the students in the class, we work with the students and the UNC Charlotte Office of Technology Transfer7 on the Intellectual property for the idea. In the spring 2013 semester we formed six teams where students worked together on these projects; one team, the conservatory team, worked in parallel on the prototype of the project (see Figures 3a and 3b) in the Senior Design II capstone course. Promoting a Culture of Innovation by Supporting Projects in Senior Design Capstone Courses Our foray into entrepreneurial senior design projects started with a student idea – can students design and build a dryer vent-crawling robot that is both innovative and marketable.
The students successfully designed and prototyped a device8. The business concept was very well received by the entrepreneurial community in our town – it won second prize for student-lead ideas. Unfortunately, since there was no financial support for a rugged prototype, the idea was not pursued. To build and promote a culture of innovation the faculty decided to support senior design projects from the course grant. We followed the UNC Charlotte senior design capstone course9,10 process of posting the project description on the course website. Examples of these can see at references 11 through 15. This methodology provided a chance to all our senior engineering students to read these entrepreneurship topics and select them to be from their top five senior design project choice if they wish.
Each semester we selected additional students to join the each group. The first entrepreneurship project that received support from the course grant was in the fall 2012. The design team consisted of five multidisciplinary (two computer, one electrical and two mechanical) students working together on designing a system that can create an environment that will autonomously grow plants utilizing various types of sensors, the sensors and controls take the human factor out of the hydroponics process and allows for the plants to be grown in optimal growing conditions11. The first goal of this project was to create a design and demonstrate a proof of concept of the design in the 2nd semester of this capstone sequence. This design can be utilized by a group of hobbyists (that don’t have the room or time for a garden) as well as large corporation looking for more efficient, cheaper, autonomous way to monitor and grow their products. This system uses a database server, control system, and a Mobile Notification System (MNS). The server is used for data storage and hosting the MNS. The control system incorporates the Arduino microcontroller board for process
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