Dr. Michael G. Spencer has more than 160 publications and 20 patents in the fields of compound semiconductors, graphene, power conversion, microwave devices and solar cell technology.  In this blog series, he explores American innovation, global competitiveness, and engineering education

The United States has an extremely strong technology base. Yet, our economy is really not structured to compete in places utilizing mature technologies such as steel or silicon based semiconductors. In technologies such as these, foreign-based manufacturers are dominant.

If we are not the country that is the leader in manufacturing mature technologies, what is our edge in the global economy? Simply put, our edge in the global community lies in creativity, innovation and start-up opportunities.

The United States has some of the best research universities in the world producing ingenious intellectual properties, which can be quite promising for startup companies. Startup companies based on these new technologies will find fertile ground for investment capital to grow these new enterprises.

Compared to the rest of the world, the United States is the leader in providing investment capital and nurturing start-ups.U. S. investors, relative to investors in Asia, have patient money and are willing to forgo profits while new technologies mature, whereas investors in other countries require start-ups to become profitable immediately.

We are the country that starts new companies and grows them.

Witness the billion-dollar conglomerates Apple, Google and Amazon—all of these started in the United States. Because America is such a contending global pioneer, it behooves us to learn how to be the best at taking ideas from Inception to Seed funding, to Series A funding and finally to a Public Offering.

Currently, too many successful startups are the result of luck.

In order to increase the success rate of startups, we need to learn how to increase innovation and creativity. We need to Engineer Innovation. Innovation and creativity are the foundations of successful entrepreneurship in the high tech global economy.

So what is innovation and creativity, and how are they enhanced?

A very interesting and open question. One of the more prominent approaches being discussed to increase innovation and creativity is the idea of the project- or problem-based learning. These approaches are quite different from traditional learning techniques used in engineering education today, but the results are very promising.

In traditional math and engineering classes, various levels of coursework are taught as well as relevant principles related to the overall subject and course of study. Next, students are given numerous problems to solve so that they can increase proficiencies in the subject applications.

In some engineering courses, students are given a project to work on, such as designing a solar car and determine what is needed to make it work efficiently. The project is assigned after students have had all of their gateway courses, engineering design courses, and specific technology electives.

New educational insights are changing the paradigm of how engineering courses are taught.

Instead of the course being the center of the universe and the problem or project being the moon that rotates around the center of the universe, the idea is to make the problem or project the center of the universe and use the coursework as the moon. In this context, students will try to solve a problem and then learn coursework, as needed it to solve the problem.

This is actually the more natural way we discover things in the world. We discover a phenomenon, and then we try to understand it by developing an approach or adapting a curriculum that exists to solve the problem. Though engineering educators are still testing this change in coursework approach, problem- and project-based learning are shaping up to add a promising piece to the puzzle of learning innovation and creativity in STEM fields. We actually do not know what we do not know when it comes to learning about innovation and how to teach it.

At Morgan, we view learning how to Engineer Innovation as an exciting challenge with a huge payoff if we get it right.

The combination of learning how to teach innovation and Makerspaces─collaboration spaces where students can create as teams and make prototypes of their creations with their own hands─will spark the entrepreneurial spirit and provide unforeseen jobs for the next generation of African Americans.

Michael G. Spencer is dean of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. School of Engineering, only the second dean in the school’s history. Dr. Spencer received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering, all from Cornell University. 

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