Throughout universities across North America, entrepreneurship and experiential education are challenging universities. Despite a greater emphasis on hands-on learning, the classroom still remains a model of the traditional “sage on the stage” style of teaching.
As a second-year undergraduate student, I have experienced many different teaching styles. However, I have consistently found that professors who have created their own start-ups are not only better communicators, teachers and mentors, but they also inspire students to at least consider entrepreneurship as a career. This is not to say that professors lacking an entrepreneurial background aren’t excellent teachers. However, those who have the experience of building a company from scratch understand the practical aspects of learning. In fact, my observation is not just limited to business professors, but even entrepreneurial health science and political science professors show a similar style.
It was last year that I had the chance to be enrolled in a course led by an entrepreneurial professor. Having created a software company that catered to large sports organizations, his classes were not only engaging, but his enthusiastic and well-rounded teaching style reflected his passion for thinking outside the box.
The common thread among entrepreneurial professors is that they encourage a two-way dialogue with their students. Instead of “filling” the students with knowledge, they instead encourage students to question the answers. Entrepreneurial professors tend to employ anecdotal accounts of their start-up experiences and weave them into lecture material, unlike other professors who usually provide examples just from the textbook.
Throughout the course, my MIS (Management Information Systems) professor would tell stories of how his company had helped NHL teams convert from a system of drafting players via phone to using computer databases. Similarly, my accounting professor turns what students often think of as a mundane subject into an exciting experience. As a successful restaurant owner, he relates difficult accounting concepts by using examples from his business and shows students the practical aspects of learning. These examples are not only memorable, they seem to spark an excitement for venture creation in students. Entrepreneurial professors also assign projects that focus on group work and team building. Obviously, not all classes, such as introductory courses, can grant professors the freedom to extensively adopt the curriculum to their own entrepreneurial styles.
And while one would expect these successful entrepreneurs to only discuss their triumphs, they also discuss their shortcomings, to show the true picture of entrepreneurship. As individuals serving in both the entrepreneurial and teaching capacities, these professors show students that one can teach, innovate and conduct research.
As many have written, entrepreneurship can be taught. While this is certainly true, the modern trend to introduce entrepreneurship courses in business and engineering programs will not alone instill in students a sense of entrepreneurship. A structural change, where entrepreneurial professors are teaching across all courses, will allow students to receive a dosage of entrepreneurship in all their classes. This consistent experience throughout their degree will help students adopt the entrepreneurial mindset.
An average student taking a full course load spends up to fifteen hours a week in lectures or tutorials. If we are to create a generation of innovators, we must allow undergraduate students to take full advantage of their educational time. Learning by doing will only occur if those leading the classrooms have the ability to understand the intricacies of experiential learning. A pilot program, where entering faculty members would be required to have a certain amount of start-up experience, in addition to academic and research work, could be implemented in the fields of business and engineering. While this solution is radical and disruptive, it could very likely transform some of our ivory towers into hubs of creation.
The modern debate on the merits of university divides the conversation into a polarized debate between those who feel that innovative students should drop out of school and those who are strong proponents of a university education. Bridging the gap between these segregated camps and creating a hybrid educational system is what really matters.
Japreet Lehal is an undergraduate student at Simon Fraser University and a member of the university’s Senate.
Education Evolution 2.0 is a commentary series examining the transformation of Canada’s postsecondary system.
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