APS News

Preparing Physicists for Entrepreneurship

A recent APS conference brought together physics educators to develop ways to add more innovation and business training to their curricula.

June 9, 2014

Physics professors are pushing to incorporate more business and innovation education into their departments' curricula. At a meeting at the American Center for Physics in College Park, MD, on June 5-6, professors from across the country and Canada gathered to develop strategies to encourage their home intuitions to teach physics students entrepreneurship skills.

"This meeting is intended to seed a movement," said Crystal Bailey, the careers program manager at APS and organizer of the conference, "Reinventing the Physicist: Innovation and Entrepreneurship Education for the 21st Century".

"It is not going to be a one-off conference where we write a report and we're done. This group is going to continue to meet, continue to share ideas, and continue to build a community of practitioners and this meeting is the first step in the process."

She added that the organizers are hoping to create a network of college physics departments to share ideas and best practices for building up entrepreneurship physics education.

"We want to make entrepreneurship and innovation education as robust in the physics curricula as it has been in the engineering curricula for the last two decades." Bailey said. "Basically the engineers have been doing this for 20 years, so there's no reason that physicists can't do that too."

Entrepreneurship education would include non-physics courses about finance, intellectual property, business plans, communication, and presentation. About 97 percent of students who earn a physics bachelor's degree don't go on to become tenured faculty and instead enter the private sector.

"If you go into the private sector, clearly you need to know a whole lot of stuff that isn't physics," said Douglas Arion, a professor of entrepreneurship at Carthage College. "The truth of the matter is we all learn by the seat of our pants, but that's not necessarily the best way to do it."

Presenters at the conference said also that a better entrepreneurship program could help recruit and retain physics students. Universities that implemented business-focused programs have seen their department sizes grow.

"We had to think hard about how we get students back into physics," said Randy Tagg of the University of Colorado. "Present conditions are really excellent for student innovators."

In addition to entrepreneurship, presenters also emphasized the need to teach technical skills to undergraduates and high school students. Tagg started an "Innovation Hyperlab" at a high school in Aurora, Colorado, for high school students to get hands-on experience learning the basics of mechanical engineering, electronics, materials science, and even some nanotech by designing and building their own projects.

"I really want to make it a full fledged [Jet Propulsion Lab] in a single building," Tagg said. "Providing space, technical resources, and on-demand learning enables students, teachers and working scientists and engineers to collaborate on innovation that society greatly needs."

Duncan Moore, who teaches entrepreneurship at the University of Rochester, highlighted how many of his students had gone on to start their own companies, and how that in turn benefits both the school and the local community.

"The mission we have is transforming ideas into enterprises that create either economic or social value," Moore said. He added that the skills taught in an entrepreneurship program carry over into almost any career, even if only about six percent of his graduates start their own tech businesses. "I can teach you the elements of being an entrepreneur… But I can't teach you to actually be an entrepreneur. It's something in your DNA."