The Teaching of Innovation

An interview with Professor John Ochs

Lehigh University's entrepreneurial studies, supported by the university's Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation, have become a model for academia in fueling the fires of student innovation. According to The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine's annual survey of the top entrepreneurship programs in the U.S., Lehigh comes in at #16. What's more, noted news and opinion website The Daily Beast ranks Lehigh as the 8th most powerful university in terms of developing its students into tech-industry leaders.


The success of firms rising from Lehigh's programs in this area is equally undeniable. So, what exactly is it about Lehigh that creates the right environment for the teaching of innovation?


"We try to give students a safe environment to try to understand what it means to develop products and fail, to struggle with it, and struggle with the ability to be professional," explains John Ochs, professor of mechanical engineering and director of Lehigh's Technical Entrepreneurship Capstone program (formerly, Integrated Product Development (IPD)) and Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) Master's Degree programs.


He also described the "deep dive process" that Lehigh students undergo through these programs: "Students are fully engaged and aware," he says. "They very quickly go from general interest to very knowledgeable."


Ochs attributes some of Lehigh's entrepreneurial know-how to Lehigh's reputation as an "applied and interdisciplinary" institution. He adds that Lehigh's entrepreneurial and cross-disciplinary programs allow students to learn the mindset necessary for success in the commercial world. "Developing a 'can do' attitude based on ethics and professionalism empowers students to find ways around obstacles, to accomplish goals in a lawful, ethical, professional manner," he says.



According to Ochs, Lehigh's programs are meant to inspire students to embrace entrepreneurship as a way of thinking about their professional roles, if not a career in and of itself. "The professional environment is changing," said Ochs. "In the tech-driven, flat-world economy we live in, small and mid-sized firms are contributing to the global economy as never before. For today's students, entrepreneurial thinking won't be a luxury post-graduation -- it will indeed be a way of life."


"The best way to learn is by doing," Ochs continues. "We have a pedagogy of 'hear, see, do, teach' and a strong belief in peer mentoring. Seniors help the juniors, graduates come back, and alumni help with money and their time. This all creates what we call our Lehigh Entrepreneurs Network."


According to Ochs, this network provides the perfect infrastructure for students to launch businesses. "People know how to create and innovate, but don't know how to commercialize. A product doesn't do any good until it gets to the market. We surround that spark of an idea with the right tools and experience to help make that leap."


Another piece of this success is due to Lehigh's size, Ochs said. "We know each other," he says. "This allows professors and students from varying concentrations to work together on a single project, which ultimately helps students develop the communication skills they will need in the real business world.


At a recent Lehigh-sponsored high school student visit, Ochs was asked by a parent what the job opportunities are for their daughter after graduation. "The question was wrong," he recalls. "The question should have been, 'What are the opportunities for my daughter to start her own business and create jobs after graduation?' Here at Lehigh, there are many such opportunities. And guess what, established companies love to hire these student entrepreneurs too."


-- Melissa Collins

Melissa Collins is a writing intern supporting Lehigh University's P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.