To prepare students to think in entrepreneurial ways,
we need to become entrepreneurial thinkers ourselves.
by Janet Bland, Marietta College
Today’s rapid pace of change and growing demand for entrepreneurial thinking can be both inspiring and frustrating to those of us in higher education; after all, we value the measured path to tenure, wear regalia designed in the Middle Ages, and we work happily within a centuries-old tradition of intellectual inquiry and accomplishment. We can be slow to innovate, yet we must prepare students for a twenty-first century in which they will need to innovate—a world in which creative problem solving, rapid experimentation, and an entrepreneurial outlook will be increasingly important in both the world of work and the advancement of knowledge. And to prepare students to think in entrepreneurial ways, we need to become entrepreneurial thinkers ourselves.
The Challenge We Faced
When we set out to update the undergraduate curriculum at Marietta College, we wanted to continue to distinguish ourselves in the highly competitive Ohio higher education recruiting environment, but we knew that we needed to move faster than the usual snail’s pace of curricular reform. We didn’t have ten years to spend bringing in new programs that our students need today.
And we decided that if we wanted different outcomes—if we wanted transformational rather than incremental change to our students’ educational experience—we needed to embrace different approaches to curricular design than we have in the past. We also wanted to challenge ourselves to develop new programming separately from our own preconceived ideas about what we were teaching and what had worked before.
The Approach We Took
We embedded entrepreneurial thinking throughout our curriculum by:
- Revising the First Year program.
- Adding an Entrepreneurship minor.
- Updating our seventeen-year-old General Education curriculum.
Throughout the process, in order to develop new answers and not be bound by assumptions from the past, we:
- Held ourselves responsible for proving that what we thought was true, was actually true. We chose to conduct a real, evidenced-based assessment that involved as many viewpoints as possible.
- Looked outside of traditional academic process for a means to develop a new curriculum—knowing that any new curriculum would need to be approved in the context of shared governance.
- Built on our experiences such that with each new project we were more autonomous and accountable, more inclusive and more innovative.
When we began we were not entrepreneurs, but by pursuing curriculum redesign these three ways, we learned how to think more creatively, and we taught each other how to be entrepreneurial in our problem solving.
What We Did
1. The First Year Program
The first challenge
No one was happy with our First-Year program—not the faculty, and certainly not the students. We had delivered a variety of programming and courses since the 1970s—and had seemingly already “tried everything.” To move forward, we needed to reinvigorate our larger First Year Experience, reengage our faculty in the freshman student experience, and evaluate ourselves in a new way.
How we approached the effort
We used Foundations of Excellence (FoE)—an externally guided self-study focused on the overall freshman experience and curriculum. Over 100 faculty, staff, and students—serving on eight committees with the Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education—examined evidence related to our students, programs, policies, and assumptions. Rather than directly testing students’ knowledge and skills, the Foundations of Excellence processes presented an aspirational vision of learning that required us (as an entire campus) to evaluate our success in:
a) establishing desired learning outcomes,
b) communicating these to students, families, and other stake holders,
c) documenting student learning with multiple sources of evidence—quantitative and qualitative, and
d) using results to confirm effective practices.
Developing benchmarks for student learning in the first year was crucial and guided institutional decisions. The self-study assured that we considered learning outcomes in a broader context of institutional improvement rather than academic knowledge.
What this approach empowered us to do
We learned to engage students and staff in efforts that previously had been almost entirely located in the faculty. Everyone from the President to the grounds crew was involved in FoE. We had honest conversations about our strengths and weaknesses, working to separate assumptions from provable outcomes. Having faculty and staff working together helped us question our self-imposed silos and gave us opportunity to forge new partnerships across campus. This unfamiliar program pushed us out of our comfort zone, productively.
In our final report we identified 144 recommendations for curricular and co-curricular program change/enhancement, and during the three-year period of review and implementation that followed, these were all addressed. This project served as our Quality Initiative in our 2015 accreditation process and was used by the HLC as a sample program for other schools.
2. The Entrepreneurship Minor
The second challenge
Before we had completed our work with Foundations of Excellence, we began work on an Entrepreneurship minor. We are a liberal arts college with strong pre-professional programs, and we believe that our liberal arts and sciences curriculum, paired with depth of knowledge in the major, is a foundation for life-long learning, critical thinking, and ongoing success for our graduates. But entrepreneurship programs had recently been growing in popularity at small institutions—everyone seemed to be building an innovation center or a makerspace. We wanted to join that conversation if it would help our students become more innovative and creative.
Through an Arthur Vining Davis Foundation grant we had new money to do something—except none of us were sure exactly what that something was. None of us were entrepreneurs, but we were willing to learn. We knew we wanted more than a couple of courses that would help current business students write a business plan. We wanted to teach our students, no matter their major, to think differently…so we needed to learn to think differently ourselves.
How we approached this effort
We selected an enthusiastic Entrepreneurship Director from the faculty and she found the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative. In the first year of the grant, we sent 10 people to training (Entrepreneurial Mindset Facilitator Certification), primarily faculty who followed the curriculum and who could then return to campus to teach it as our ENTR 101 course. I attended it as Provost with the goal of learning to work differently. We returned with great enthusiasm, ready to share the idea that entrepreneurs are people who think a different way, not just individuals who want to start businesses.
We asked the Business and Economics department to propose a minor, and they brought back something that looked like management-lite, a minor that would appeal to a business major but not likely to other students. I asked them to go back to the drawing board, consider the approach of the Entrepreneurial Mindset training, and create a minor that would appeal to an English major as much as an Econ major. We hoped all of our students could become social entrepreneurs, to want to make both a profit and a difference.
What this approach empowered us to do
The result was a flexible course of study, anchored by an introductory course that taught the mindset—and a mini-capstone that would allow students completing the minor to produce a project of their own design. Between those two points, students had a variety of practical and creative course options, everything from accounting to creative writing to organizational communication to graphic design.
Additional grant money from the state of Ohio allowed us to bring the mindset training to campus for 25 additional faculty and staff, and we also opened it up to community members and regional high school students. This year we’ll be sending another team for training, including the Director of Admissions—so she can teach our admissions recruiters the language of the creative mindset.
Long term, we hope for our programming and participation to continue expanding. Just this month, the Chair of the English department began collaborating with the Director to encourage our English majors to pursue the Entrepreneurship minor to develop their critical thinking and creative problem solving.
3. The General Education Curriculum
The third challenge
Before we had fully developed our vision of how Entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking might impact our entire campus, we needed to address general education. Our old Gen Ed curriculum was 17 years old. Over the years, the curriculum had become watered down with exceptions and deviations, and it was showing its age. Designed in a time of belt tightening and program elimination, the distribution requirements were more effective at protecting departmental territory and faculty jobs than contributing to student learning. By now, the curriculum’s purpose and effectiveness were unclear, and its current requirements were seen as arbitrary. Our faculty members were as complicit as our students in considering any requirement outside the major as something to “get through.” A new Gen Ed would require a new approach.
How we approached this effort
We formed a task force and decided to use Design Thinking—with its proven process for developing innovative solutions to problems—to guide our efforts. Facilitated by one of our Graphic Design faculty members, we established a timeline and a process of information gathering. We needed to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our old Gen Ed and of other possible models. To get there:
- I sent part of the task force to AAC&U to gather intel on best practices.
- We researched curriculum at countless peer and aspirant peer institutions.
- Our end of the year pedagogy workshop engaged faculty in the identification of key elements they would like to see in a new Gen Ed.
- In multiple forums, we spoke to every group on campus.
Once we gathered all of this qualitative data, the task force then invited a faculty member to teach the rest of us how to analyze all of it. At each major stage of development, we updated the faculty on our progress. Each time we faced a challenge, we relied upon the tenets of Design Thinking, and we built needed skills with the help of our faculty colleagues’ discipline-specific expertise. But most of all, we worked to resist the impulse to simply repeat what we had done in the past. In the end, the results were positive.
What this approach empowered us to do
Our new Gen Ed includes:
- The Pioneer Path—common core that connects all students to a specific series of curricular experiences from matriculation through graduation. Our work in the First Year Experience was folded into this element.
- A smaller distribution, giving students more choice and flexibility.
- Secondary minors and areas of specialization required for a second opportunity at deep learning. We’ll be developing additional interdisciplinary minors, based on the Entrepreneurship model, in the coming year.
- An experiential learning requirement. All students are required to participate in an internship, formal service learning or leadership project, student-faculty research, or study abroad.
- Foreign language proficiency. We added this to underscore the importance of global engagement.
We are now beginning our rollout year of pedagogy/new course development support for the new General Education curriculum with the help of our Worthington Center for Teaching Excellence.
What We Learned
The liberal arts can be a natural fit with entrepreneurial thinking—but to get there, we have to think creatively about the way we approach curriculum change.
As we updated our undergraduate curriculum at Marietta College, we learned how seeking off-campus expertise can challenge our assumptions and change our process. But we also learned that eventually we must become our own experts and institute our own change, unique to our campus.
So what should you keep in mind when seeking to be entrepreneurial in your curriculum development or any campus-wide initiative driven by entrepreneurial thinking?
- Assemble a group of diverse and creative thinkers—people who are comfortable with change and who bring different ideas to the table. Buy in and support for entrepreneurial approaches may come from different or even surprising sources.
- Have a vision—if you could accomplish anything, what would it be? If you had no limits, what would you do? Be ambitious and aspirational; identify your areas of improvement and your ideal outcomes.
- Consider outside help—listen to people who don’t know you or your campus history. They may have suggestions that you need.
- Design a pathway to those outcomes that integrates and encourages new processes, new people, and new thinking. Resist the tendency to rely on “what we have always done.” There are many paths and budgets and timelines that can lead to the same great outcomes—figure out what will work for you, today, not what worked for others fifteen years ago.
- Overcommunicate on process and outcomes. People invest and take ownership of things they know a lot about and that they feel part of. No one should be surprised or uninformed.
Meaningful change in higher education can be challenging, and an entrepreneurial mindset can speed up the pace and empower you to make transformational changes at your institution.
Image at top of article used with permission from Marietta College. Photo © Robert Caplin.