CULTURE SHIFT THE OPUS COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING IS THINKING DIFFERENTLY ABOUT ENTREPRENEURSHIP By Christopher Stolarski
At their core, engineers are problem-solvers. Modern-day pioneers, they design and build solutions to explore new frontiers, from the microscopic to the cosmic. They imagine and develop tools to accomplish tasks grand and routine. Engineers are technically savvy but creative — analytical dreamers. Much of the same could be said of entrepreneurs. But, for all their similarities, many engineers don’t think of themselves as such. The Opus College of Engineering wants that to change.
On a dreary day in early November, 85 engineering students walked into Engineering Hall and were given 12 hours to identify a problem that senior citizens face and design a solution. This vague assignment kicked off the college’s first hackathon, sponsored by Milwaukee-based Direct Supply, an equipment, service and technology provider for the elder care industry. Teams of undergraduate and graduate students from all engineering disciplines worked with Direct Supply representatives and a panel of senior citizens, including some Marquette alumni, to create solutions that included in-home assistive technologies, social apps, facial recognition and memory-assistive algorithms, home security systems, and medication management devices. A design challenge on the surface, it’s also the first step in any good entrepreneurial process, according to Laura Lindemann, Eng ’00, the college’s director of industry relations. “Engineers, like entrepreneurs, should be starting with that problem identification,” she says. “It was great to have this open-ended challenge where our students could decide what problem
they needed to solve and then solve it. And the students enjoyed using their skills to tackle a real business problem.” That realism is key, Lindemann points out. “This isn’t fake. It’s not just a simulation or a recruiting tool,” she says. “Besides, students are savvy. They don’t want you to script something with an answer. This sort of competition, in real time, mirrors the business environment. Students respond to that.” Entrepreneurism truly came to life during the competition’s judging stage and in the weeks after the competition, says Justin Smith, Eng ’03, Direct Supply engineering manager. “Teams had to present their ideas to a panel of industry experts and potential investors. They had to not only explain why their idea was valuable but also how they were going to manufacture, market and ultimately sell their product,” he says. In the end, a graduate student team and another team composed of freshmen tied for first place, and neither one is finished yet.
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