URI Engineering Students Learn to Think Like Entrepreneurs

Bridget Palm
Bridget Palm explains one of the projects her team made during the course. Photo by Neil Nachbar

By Neil Nachbar

While most students at the University of Rhode Island went home during the winter break, 21 students in the College of Engineering learned what it takes to become entrepreneurs.

From Jan. 2-12, the group met each day from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm for the course, “EGR 326 Engineering Entrepreneurship II.” This was the third year the course has been offered.

“This course is a two-week, immersive, hands-on bootcamp that makes the students break past their limiting beliefs and realize their full potential,” said Rajesh Nair, who taught the course with URI Ocean Engineering Professor Jim Miller. Nair is a senior lecturer and the director of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center for the Asia School of Business in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is also a visiting scholar at MIT.

Nair was introduced to Miller by URI Associate Research Professor Gopu Potty, who is a colleague of Miller’s in the ocean engineering program.

“Rajesh and I come from the same town in India. Our families have known each other for 20 years,” said Potty. “I was aware of his career path and his mission to spread the entrepreneurship spirit around the globe. So, when Jim told me about the entrepreneurship course at URI, I immediately suggested Rajesh.”

The students in the course, all of whom were seniors, represented many different engineering majors. Nine were in the mechanical engineering program, four in ocean engineering, three in civil engineering, two in electrical engineering and one each in chemical engineering, computer engineering and biomedical engineering.

The students were randomly sorted into teams to work on three projects, one for each stage of the course. The stages included:

Stage 1: Maker

The students learned to ideate, design and make things just for fun. The challenge was to make an annoying toy. They learned digital fabrication as their tool for this stage.

Stage 2: Innovator

In this stage, students learned to identify and understand a problem in a community, and develop strategies for solving it. The projects in this stage required the students to learn and apply the design thinking process.

Stage 3: Entrepreneur

The students were tasked with finding ways to monetize a product that made people’s lives easier or safer. A business plan wasn’t required, but the students needed to think like an entrepreneur to complete this stage.

For each stage of the course, the teams had to create a demonstrable prototype, make a one-minute video about the project and present the idea to the class.

“They learned to understand problems from a deeper sense and get past the first solutions they think of from their limited experience to get to original and untested strategies,” stated Nair.

“Professor Rajesh had us brainstorm everyday problems and take a long, thorough look at what the source of the problem was before trying to come up with a solution,” said Frank Zingarelli, a mechanical engineering major from Saunderstown, RI. “This method was extremely helpful for any engineer, not just ones like myself who are striving to become entrepreneurs.  Engineers typically come up with a solution and then become attached to it, even if it may not be the best way to solve a problem or even be marketable.”

Marjorie Pickard, an electrical engineering major from North Kingstown, RI, also appreciated learning a new way to recognize a problem and find a solution for it.

“Usually engineers are given a problem and are tasked with thinking of a solution,” said Pickard. “This course turned that way of thinking on its head and forced us to identify problems ourselves. Being able to identify issues is essential for an entrepreneur, because a company is only successful if it fulfills a need for its customers.  We were lead through the entire ideation process: customer research/interviews, problem analyzation, brainstorming, identifying a solution and prototyping.”

Three field trips taken during the course helped the students identify needs in the community and inspired product ideas. The trips included the Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown, RI; the Inner Space Center at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography on the Narragansett Bay Campus; and Day One, in Providence. Day One is an agency that specifically deals with issues of sexual assault as a community concern.

“Field trips were conducted to help students empathize with people and their problems,” explained Miller. “Design thinking starts with empathy.”

“Understanding the importance of empathizing with a community to better develop a solution to an unmet need is critical to solving the problem,” said Micah Kittel, an IEP (International Engineering Program) student who is studying ocean engineering and Spanish. “The field trips provided a perspective on the kinds of issues we could potentially face as engineers. These are the kinds of problems that are not included in a textbook or faced in the classroom.”

Kittel, who is from Portsmouth, RI, added, “EGR 326 was an extremely pleasant surprise. I had no idea what it was going to be like and it ended up being my favorite class that I’ve taken at URI.”

Between the hands-on projects, the field trips, the group dynamics and the unique approach to problem-solving, the students were engaged in the course for the entire duration.

“In all my student life, no course ever grabbed my attention beyond an hour, where as this course kept me engaged for 11 days, for eight hours a day,” said Stefan Stelling, a civil engineering major from Blue Point, NY.

Group A: Steven Cipolla, Liheng MA, Marjorie Pickard, Ernesto Pena
Final Project: Apollo, an LED traffic signal screen that features different shapes and colors and a visible measurement of time
Poster  |  Video

Group B: Andrew Anderson, Dominic Asprinio, Jason Epstein
Final Project: The Clean Machine, a far less wasteful alternative to the traditional dishwasher
Poster  |  Video

Group C: Abdelaziz Almosa, John King, Bridget Palm
Final Project: Secret Security Alarm, an easy way for a child to call a dispatcher for help without alerting the abuser
Poster  |  Video

Group D: Andrew Kurdziel, Michael Molinski, Adam Nabb, Jackie Wang
Final Project: WeWash, a laundry service app which allows the user to leave their clothes in a bag with a QR code, and then alert the user when the clothes have been picked up, washed and returned
Poster  |  Video

Group E: Abdullah Albakr, Peter Girard, Kehinde Oladosu, Frank Zingarelli
Final Project: Student to Student, a platform that allows students to give advice to other students on courses, majors and extracurricular activities
Poster  |  Video

Group F: Macmillan Hill, Micah Kittel, Stefan Stelling
Final Project: Vizabuoy, a tow buoy with bluetooth connectivity that provides swimmers with information about their swim, such as heart rate, distance traveled and time; a flashing distress beacon can be added as a safety feature
Poster  |  Video