Producing an Innovative Workforce.

Written By: Dr. David Wells

The most persistent problem identified in the wide spectrum of challenges for our economy is workforce  —  availability of enough people with the right skill sets and the right attitudes to fuel the continuing surge of the F-M economy.  This is doubly true for Startup Fargo.  I recently took the opportunity to poll one of Mary Goroski’s discussion groups at Atomic Coffee about the traits that young firms are seeking in new hires.  Here’s that list:

  • Problem solver
  • Self-starter
  • Enthusiastic
  • Genuine
  • Engaged
  • Experience with team-based multi-disciplinary projects
  • Verbal skills
  • Desire
  • Tenacity

Unfortunately, that doesn’t sound much like goals in a traditional educational system.  In my mind, this list of desirable traits translates into “innovative” and “entrepreneurial”  —  the oft-cited “I&E”.  All of the traits highlighted by Mary’s discussion group are contained in the I&E mindset.

So, if there is a continuing need for more people entering the F-M workforce and the traits in demand are summed up in “an innovative-entrepreneurial mindset”, how do we in the higher education business go about being a purposeful and effective contributor to the solution.

Many years of working at this educational challenge leads me to observe, first, that we can subdivide college curricula (very roughly) into two categories  —  “tools” and “applications”.  Courses that teach “tools” include math, English, engineering mechanics, lab science, computer programming.  These are where students learn basic skills.  There is a correct way to write code and to calculate stresses and to nurture a cell culture and to write a cohesive paragraph.  And these correct ways must be mastered before anything useful can be attempted in the “applications” realm.

In basic “tools” learning, there have been some exciting experiments in “teaching in context”  —  presenting fundamental methods just when needed for understanding of a more complex topic.  These methods are, mostly, somewhat expensive, requiring much more hands-on teacher attention than can be managed with current student-faculty ratios  —  plus, new teaching materials and properly-equipped learning spaces.  In the current era of pressure to reduce educational budgets, “teaching in context” approaches are very unlikely to even see the starter’s flag.  They require funding that is unlikely to be provided.  So, we get along with mostly the old, traditional ways to teach fundamentals  —  and with widely-dispersed creative efforts by individual professors.

Then there is the “applications” portion of the curricula.  In engineering, these are generally called “design” courses, where students are presumed to have attained mastery of the “tools” and are tasked to create solutions to open-ended problems.  These courses are also our opportunity to instill innovative habits of mind in students.  To do so requires the professor to permit (indeed, encourage) students to have ideas that did not first come from the professor.  To borrow a phrase from Jim Gartin, the professor must “check your ego at the door!”

The first obstacle to be overcome is student mindset.  Our K-12 educational system does a great job of producing passive learners.  A good secondary school student sits quietly at her desk, taking notes.  She reads the textbook and does her homework.  Occasionally, she spits back to the teacher some information that the teacher already knows thoroughly.  These are not the traits needed in startup firms!  So, the college instructor must disestablish that “good student” characteristic.

My Bison Microventure [Bmv] and Bison ProVenture [ProV] courses provide an example of how this might be done.  These are theme-focused innovation courses, using entirely discovery learning  —  there are no lectures.  They are one-credit elective courses repeatable for credit.  Bmv is focused on technologies useful in improving bone implant surgery; ProV on technologies useful in improving pediatric prosthetics.

I start by sending a list of problems and questions to the class roster about a week before school starts, asking them to come to the first class meeting prepared to discuss what they want to do and how they would propose to accomplish their self-adopted assignment.  I never give assignments in the traditional sense and never tell students how to do things.  I do insist that they solve those problems of method and place and procedure.  My attention is focused on what is to be done, on resources and connections that could be useful to the student and on how I might provide support for student initiative.

Students very soon take ownership of “their” projects.  The students come to “own” the project, its goals and the methods used.  Then, my best contribution is to stay out of their way.  Sometimes the student–selected approach to design and experiment does not work out very well.  What would traditionally be considered failure results.  In our environment, however, there is no such thing as failure, only deferred success.  So a “failed” approach is quickly put into context, lessons are extracted and on we go.  Sometimes, the student–selected approach does work well  —  occasionally, wildly so.  This is celebrated as a student success!

In either case, the output is a group is students who are  …  problem-solvers  …  enthusiastic self-starters  …  genuine, engaged team players with diverse other disciplines  …  tenacious and self-directed  …  skilled in presenting their point-of-view.

The views contained in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect in any way the policies of my university, college or department.