November 06, 2013

Professor Charles Kim (right) works with students during Bucknell's KEEN Winter Interdisciplinary Design Experience.

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By Andy Hirsch

LEWISBURG, Pa. — A bulletin board outside of Mechanical Engineering Professor Charles Kim's office offers an unusual piece of advice to passersby: fail.

"Our students need to think differently about failure," Kim said. "They need to be okay with it. They need to learn how to fail miserably at something they have an emotional attachment to, and then say, 'Okay, I'm going to reflect on that and I'm going to use that experience to move forward.'"

KEEN Engineering Unleashed logoLearning through failure is among the tenets of the Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN), a program created by the Kern Family Foundation. The consortium of 19 universities, including Bucknell, is dedicated to equipping engineering students with an entrepreneurial mindset that will allow them to transform the workforce and economy in America.

Bucknell recently proposed a three-year, multi-phased approach to help tackle the task. It received KEEN's support, along with a grant for more than $1 million to implement the program.

"We were thrilled," said Keith Buffinton, dean of the College of Engineering. "I think we've demonstrated to the foundation how quickly we can achieve the goals set before us, how effective we are and how connected we are. One of the things the people there recognized is that Bucknell can have a significant influence on engineering education nationwide."

The three-year project includes four components, broadly identified as:

  • Developing faculty workshops geared toward exposing more faculty to the entrepreneurial mindset and engaging faculty with KEEN.
  • Holding extracurricular competitions and programs to give students practical product-development experience.
  • Reshaping the introductory course Engineering 100 to introduce the entrepreneurial mindset and other key components of KEEN to all first-year students.
  • Creating six Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, Application and Systems (IDEAS) Studio electives, giving students greater access to an interdisciplinary, hands-on and industry-informed approach to their engineering education.

The grant will also allow Bucknell to hire an industrial liaison to coordinate more involvement between outside organizations and Bucknell, providing students with real industry projects and problems to work on — not just from a technical standpoint, but with an actual client in mind.

"We're interested in making our students more valuable," Kim said. "What type of company wouldn't want to have a new employee who already knows what it takes to make a new product, what it takes to identify new markets, what it takes to know how much a design change is really going to cost? We're not just educating students to learn the nuts and bolts, we're giving them the hands-on skills to think more broadly."

Bucknell is one of just four institutions in the country awarded a grant within KEEN that exceeds $1 million. The support speaks to the value of Bucknell's contributions to the network since the University accepted an invitation to join in 2011. Those contributions will increase through the implementation of this program as Bucknell shares its experience and results with the other institutions.

"The rate of development has been remarkable and sets a new standard for faculty involvement in such a short period," said KEEN Program Director Doug Melton. "Their work and the culture at Bucknell will result in better, entrepreneurially minded engineers with an understanding of their important role in society."

The aspirations shared by KEEN and Bucknell are lofty, and perhaps daunting; the transformational results are a long-term vision. But with this support, Bucknell has reaffirmed its position as a national visionary in engineering education.

"We're not going to produce a lot more engineers here," said Buffinton, "but we can produce better engineers. Engineers that better serve themselves, that better serve the companies they work for and that better serve the national economy. It's an obligation I think we have as an institution, and we're proud to be able to contribute to this mission."