Last spring, billionaire PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel paid $100,000 to 24 students from some of America’s top schools to drop out and launch a business. But why drop out? As Alison Buki reports in our cover story, students around the country are discovering they can both stay in college and invent products with commercial or social potential. Buki highlights four intriguing examples of undergraduate invention and entrepreneurship: a turbine inspired by front-porch wind twisters; a lighted, reusable surgical retractor; a shipping container turned medical clinic for developing countries and disaster sites; and software that lets event planners keep closer track of who’s apt to bail at the last minute. One appeal of engineering is how it can marry seemingly divergent goals and come out with a win-win. In this case, engineering educators are finding ways for students to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams and emerge as better-educated engineers. One of the appealing things about today’s students is that, besides hoping to become the next Peter Thiel, many apply their inventive talent to solving stubborn human problems, like Kenya’s unacceptably high maternal death rate.
Industry has long argued for an expansion in the ranks of engineers. And now the President’s Jobs and Competitiveness Council has taken up the cry, calling on universities to graduate 10,000 more engineers annually. But leading educators are not responding with one voice. Engineering deans contacted by Tom Grose for his feature “The 10,000 Challenge” generally agreed the goal could be met. But engineer Daniel Mote, former president of the University of Maryland, College Park, says, “My heart says there should be more engineers, but I don’t see that demand at the moment.” However the debate is resolved, the Jobs Council challenge has trained a spotlight on poor retention and may generate new efforts to fix it.
Turn this magazine over and read about historic, spirited San Antonio, site of ASEE’s 19th annual Conference and Exposition, and the plenary speakers and distinguished lecturers who promise to make this year’s event worthwhile for educators and researchers alike.
As always, we welcome your comments on this month’s Prism.