BOZEMAN — As it scales up efforts to prepare a new generation of engineers who can proactively tackle complex challenges and improve society, Montana State University is poised to become a national model in engineering education.

With a new $598,000 grant from the Kern Family Foundation, MSU will advance its goal of graduating engineers equipped not only with technical skills but also an entrepreneurial, can-do approach to their profession, according to William Schell, associate director of MSU's Montana Engineering Education Research Center. The three-year funding will support faculty development and interdisciplinary research on engineering education.

MSU engineering students at the Design Fair. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

"This is really exciting," said Schell, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering. "It sets us up to become an exemplar of how to integrate entrepreneurial thinking into how we teach engineering."

The grant comes less than a year after MSU joined the nationwide Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network, or KEEN, which is aimed at fostering what it calls entrepreneurial mindset so that engineering graduates can recognize the full scope of engineering challenges and solutions, understand market potential and impact, then take action to generate value for themselves and their communities.

According to Kern Family Foundation program director Douglas Melton, the new grant recognizes MSU assets — the Montana Engineering Education Research Center, a culture of interdisciplinary collaboration and recent investments in undergraduate engineering education such as the new $53 million Norm Asbjornson Hall — and seeks to leverage them into practices that could be adopted by the other 46 universities in KEEN.

"It's clear to us that MSU has a real passion for engineering education and the success of its students," Melton said. "We anticipate that what MSU develops under this grant could serve as a model for other universities around the country."

According to Brett Gunnink, dean of the engineering college, the grant is well-aligned with the college's goals and priorities. "Striving to develop an entrepreneurial mindset in our students and faculty supports our mission very well," he said. "We are very thankful for this support from the Kern Family Foundation."

The funding will support training courses for about 60 MSU faculty, mostly in engineering but also in other MSU colleges such as business, in conjunction with MSU's Center for Faculty Excellence; support for three faculty coaches who can serve as a resource for MSU engineering professors as they adapt their curricula; and internal MSU grants to support faculty while they redesign their courses. The Kern grant also includes a major research component that will seek to measure the outcomes of these changes in the classroom.

Kregg Aytes, professor in MSU's Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship, will work with Schell and others on the research. He said that although there have been some studies on entrepreneurial thinking in business undergraduates, the MSU team will be developing new approaches to measure entrepreneurial mindset in engineering students, including surveys and other assessment methods.

"This is action-based research," Aytes said. "We're going to be making changes in the classroom at the same time we're measuring things and considering how these new approaches could be scaled up. It will be a unique contribution to the field."

Aytes said the concept of entrepreneurial thinking in engineering resonates with how MSU teaches business and makes sense from business perspective. "The problems in society that need to be solved are often technical problems, and it's the engineer who sees them first," he said. "What we want is for engineering graduates to be able to see that there's an opportunity, that they can tap into a market and create change."

According to Schell, teaching entrepreneurial concepts to engineers involves encouraging curiosity, an ability to see connections across multiple areas of a challenge, and an approach of identifying how actions can add value. Entrepreneurship isn't just about starting businesses, but about proactively solving problems — something that an engineer can do in any situation, including from within a business, organization or community, he said.

"The fundamental benefit is giving students a better lens for seeing the world where they apply their engineering tools," Schell said. "We want students to be better able to see problems as they need to be solved, not just as a textbook presents them."

From the student perspective, the changes in MSU's classrooms and teaching labs will be noticeable as a shift toward more active learning, with hands-on activities and working in pairs or small teams, much as collaborators would tackle a problem in a company setting.

"We know already from research that active learning works better than sitting in a lecture and taking notes," Schell said. "So we think this will be a benefit to students not just in terms of advancing entrepreneurial thinking, but in terms of their engineering education as a whole."

The Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network is a partnership of undergraduate engineering programs around the U.S. KEEN's mission is to graduate engineers with an entrepreneurial mindset so they can create personal, economic and societal value through a lifetime of meaningful work. There are currently 47 universities and colleges working together to instill this mindset in engineering students. For more information, visit EngineeringUnleashed.com.

The Kern Family Foundation invests in the rising generation of Americans, equipping them to become tomorrow's leaders and innovators. Established in 1999, the Wisconsin-based foundation invests in the rising generation of leaders. It aims to effect systemic change through partnerships to preserve the tradition of private enterprise. Its three program areas are Education and Character, Faith, Work and Economics, and Entrepreneurial Engineering.

- Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service -