7 min read

Innovating Higher Education

Innovating Higher Education
Maggie Franz

Maggie Franz

NYU has been pioneering innovation and entrepreneurial education for the past ten years.

New York is a pretty unique place, reinventing itself as needed, again and again over time.  Today the city is a hotbed for startups, boasting many incubators and innovation labs, but New York wasn’t always a center for entrepreneurship.  Before the markets crashed some 11 years ago, New York was primarily a hub for finance and banking.  After the crash, the city faced a crucial decision: diversify or die.  The resilient city decided to diversity, investing in tech and creating an environment that would attract new businesses, and talent in the form of startups. 

Helping to lead this revolution, was NYU, and in particular the Polytechnic Institute of NYU (now the NYU Tandon School of Engineering) and then professor Kurt Becker, who is now the Vice Dean for Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at NYU Tandon.  When we sat down with Kurt, we asked him to share with us how the university was able to champion innovation, with the inherent challenges that are bound to exist when a higher education institution does something radically different.

Universities are tradidtionally structured on two formal pillars: disseminating knowledge (teaching) or creating new knowledge (research).  Innovation tends to exist outside of these, making it difficult, at an organizational level, to embrace.  Those that are able to find a way, either by constructing a third pillar or housing it within one or both of their existing pillars, are revolutionizing the higher educational experience for their students.  NYU Tandon faced this particular challenge head on, by integrating it into both of their traditional pillars – by incorporating it into the classrom and creating new handson learning experiences for students, as well as building innovation labs; where companies, students and faculty come together in a research like environment, to amplify a startup and propell it into the next phase of its lifecycle.

In the beginning, the university first focused on building an incubator, creating an environment where businesses from New York could come in and work with university staff and students.  This incubator is the NYU Tandon Future Labs.  The university worked with the city of New York to develop this incubator program, which means that NYU’s program is unique in that it must be kept open; a startup does not have to be affiliated currently or previously with the university in order to participate in the incubator.  Students can engage with the Future Labs in various ways; most commonly they can intern with the Future Lab staff to get hands-on experience regarding how an incubator works.  Or, they can intern directly with a startup, in the incubator to directly experience the startup world.   Faculty can engage with the incubator startups either as consultants, or through a “Faculty Engineer in Residence” program.  Since inception, the Future Labs have created over 3,200 job in NYC and have had an economic impact of over $4 billion on the city’s economy.

The next step for the university, was to begin building formal (in class) and informal (extra-curricular) education around entrepreneurship, so that every student who passes through their doors, has some degree of experience with design thinking and the creative skills that it takes to become a part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem.  The formal part of this is still a work in progress as NYU is developing new coursework and educational programming around innovation and entrepreneurship. Kurt Becker explained that the goal is not to turn every student into the founder of a startup.  “That would be missing our educational mission” he said.  And he went on to further explain that “we want every student to have exposure to entrepreneurial thinking and what it takes to an entrepreneur.  That will help them in theiur future professional career in many ways.” 

At NYU Tandon, freshmen students are given an introductory course, a forum on innovation, teaching the history of innovation and how it has impacted our society through case studies and guest speakers, who come from the innovation and entrepreneurship world.  Becker said that if you wait until their junior or senior year to expose them to these methods of thinking and problem solving, it’s too late.  So he and the university have worked innovation into the very beginning of a student’s higher education experience, when their ways of thinking and approaching problems are being formulated. In their General Engineering course, students are now broken up into groups and presented with societal problems, for which the students will develop or engineer a solution.  In many cases, at the end of the course, students have actually created a solution, real and workable to the problem.  Historically this class used to be much more by the book and less experiential.

During their sophomore and jnior year they have other elective courses available to them, where they can choose to pursue innovation further.  Many of the classes at this point in their journey are less focused on traditional engineering education, and more so on developing creative and innovative solutions to real-world problems - with their engineering skills as a means to these solutions.  Now the focus is on developing a broad range of modules and courses addressing innovation and entrepreneurship in the sophomore and junior years to round out the student’s experience. 

Recently, the School, started to participate in a national program around vertically integrated projects (VIP), where students begin working as a sophomore on a complex and challenging multi-disciplnary problem, with other students over the course of their time at the university.  Outside of Tandon, the university boasts the Leslie Entrepreneurship Lab and the Entrepreneurial Institite, where any student, faculty or researchers, can come together to work on ideas and inventions, turning them into startups. And finaly, in their senior year students undertake a capstone project

NYU is also participating in unique program called I-Corps Program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  This program enables NYU to work together with other New York based universities such as Columbia University, and the City University of New York with the goal of nurturing and supporting local teams as they work to explore if the intellectual property created with NSF support can form the basis of a technology that may have a real market potential. 

In these ways, NYU Tandon is innovating the higher education experience for their engineering students, and for their entire university.  When students enter the doors of their institution, their thinking, and soon their methodologies for problem solving, are shaped by exposure and education around innovation, design and entrepreneurial thinking.  They are challenged to apply their knowledge and creativity to conceive solutions to real world problems through innovation and entrepreneurship and its core principles. 

Kurt Becker studied physics at the University of Saarbrücken in Germany, after which he came to Canada as a Postdoc, and subsequently started his academic career in the US.  While at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, Becker has himself been involved in two startups.  This experience has been invaluable and shaped much of what he has done since coming to NYU.  Starting at the Polytechnic University, the predecessor of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, he first served as Vice Provost for Research and Technology initiatives and has been in this and similar roles for the past 11 years as the Polytechnic University became NYU Tandon.  Becker is well known for his work in physics, especially his study of plasmas and microplasmas, for which he has been the recipient of multiple awards and about which he has authored many articles and conference presentation.

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