It's a long way from the first flash of insight in the lab to a final product in the hands of eager consumers, but one group of Tennessee engineers spent the summer equipping itself to span that distance.
About 15 junior and senior engineering students from across the country took two courses designed to add an entrepreneurial attitude to the scientific and technical skills they've accumulated in their undergraduate careers. "We try to make them think about things they weren't trained to think about as engineering students," said Arnold Lumsdaine, an associate professor in UT's Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering. "We tried to bring the gearheads together with the marketers so that the engineers will understand what it takes to bring a product to market."
Lumsdaine is the director of the dual-degree M.S.–M.B.A. program of UT's colleges of business administration and engineering, which began in 2001 and was invigorated in 2005 by a "Partnerships for Innovation" award from the National Science Foundation. He is joined on the business side by Kenneth Kahn, an associate professor in marketing and logistics in the College of Business Administration. The five-year-old dual-degree graduate program in product development that the pair has headed has now been extended to the undergraduate engineering curriculum.
Kahn said the two-course summer session is designed to expose undergraduates to the demands of the business world, so they will enter the M.S.–M.B.A. program with a broader perspective on their work. "The majority of students who came into the existing program had no experience with project development," Kahn said. "They had come directly out of an undergraduate engineering program. We want to give focus to their efforts, to give them a specific problem area based on their education and interests. Certainly we'd all like to develop cold fusion, but young engineers have to be introduced to reasonable goals, to what they can actually do."
Lumsdaine and Kahn's 2-year program overlaps 30 hours of engineering studies and 44 hours of business courses into a 60-hour double degree. The first year is focused largely on business; the second, on engineering studies. The students they expect eventually to attract will bring to the program at least 2 years of industry experience. "Our aim is that, when you're done with the program, you're ready to start a business," Lumsdaine said. "Ideally, our students will come out of the program with a business plan and a product prototype."
One pair of dual-degree graduates has already done just that. As part of their program, Tony Spezia and Ben Jordan developed automobile brake lights that glow more brightly the harder the brakes are applied. Their product, SAFELight, is marketed as a way of reducing the number and severity of rear-end collisions.
Encouraging regional entrepreneurial growth is one of the long-term goals of the UT program, Lumsdaine said. "We want to instill the habits of entrepreneurship into these undergraduates, and we hope they'll pursue their business goals in this region." To that end, the program makes use of area entrepreneurs both as instructors and as providers of internships. Lumsdaine said business leaders and members of the UT law faculty also do a significant amount of teaching. "When you get the two worlds together, the engineer begins to understand what the marketing person is concerned about, and vice versa," Lumsdaine said.
Lumsdaine and Kahn are also plowing their development energies back into the program itself. They are developing an idea bank of product possibilities drawn from the rich environment formed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the university, and other area concerns. These intellectual properties, complete with standard nondisclosure and other legal papers, will give future dual-degree students a head start in bringing the next big idea to the global marketplace.
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For more information, contact the UT College of Business Administration, 716 Stokely Management Center, Knoxville, TN 37996-0570, or call (865) 974-5061.