New Course Introduces Undergrad Engineers to Business

May 1, 2006

A course now being offered for the first time at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering gives engineering undergraduates an introduction to business. The pilot course, EGR 165.03: Introduction to Business in Technology-Based Companies, aims to provide a basic understanding of business concepts in preparation for future careers in industry.

"In today's high-tech environment, engineers are expected to be conversant in, and able to function across, multiple disciplines," said director of the Master of Engineering Management Program (MEMP), Jeff Glass, who is teaching the new course along with Professor Barry Myers, senior associate dean for industrial partnerships and research commercialization. Myers is also director of the Duke Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization.

"Engineers' design and project decisions are influenced by a multitude of external factors that result from financial, management, marketing and intellectual property concerns," Glass added. "The course aims to introduce students to each of these key business concepts."

"The course takes advantage of an interdisciplinary group of Duke experts to essentially pack as much of the one-year MEMP program as possible into a single course," he said. Contributors to the course include Martha Reeves, visiting professor of marketing and management studies; entrepreneur-in-residence Daniel Egger; Kevin Lyn, Engineering Alumni Council member and intellectual property expert; and Sam Veraldi, visiting professor of sociology.

The 25 students currently enrolled in the course are applying their new knowledge by working in teams to develop a business or product plan. They must develop a two-minute "elevator pitch" and a full presentation as if selling their idea to potential investors. Each undergraduate team is aided by a MEMP graduate student mentor.

The first group of students is developing business plans for products including E-Receipts, an online database that stores receipt information to accurately keep track of expenses; EverSoothe Pack, a device that senses hot or cold flashes and then provides heating or cooling to make the wearer more comfortable; and LPS, a system that wirelessly tracks luggage as it travels on airplanes and through airports, to eradicate the risk of losing passengers' bags, among others.

Students are also keeping "What's not working" idea logbooks throughout the course as a way of identifying opportunities for innovation. The concept was inspired by a lecture given by Duke alumus and innovator Robert Fischell, Glass said.

"We want students to get comfortable thinking on an ongoing basis about opportunities for innovation," Myers said. "It's not something reserved for research labs, but rather it involves the regular recognition of everyday problems that could be made better."

"Students in the course have already commented that they feel much more prepared for job interviews," Glass noted. He expects the new class will become an annual offering, although it will first have to go through the standard approval processes.