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Opportunity Thinktank: Laying a Foundation for the Entrepreneurially Minded Engineer

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Entrepreneurship & Engineering Innovation Division – Tactical Approaches to Entrepreneurship Education

Tagged Division

Entrepreneurship & Engineering Innovation

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1208.1 - 26.1208.21



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Paper Authors


Robert Gettens Western New England University

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Rob Gettens is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and the Director of the First Year Engineering Program at Western New England University.

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Harlan E Spotts Jr. Western New England University

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Professor of Marketing in the College of Business

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José Antonio Riofrío Western New England University

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José A Riofrío received his B.S. in Engineering Physics from Elizabethtown College in 2003, and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Vanderbilt University in 2005 and 2008, respectively. At Vanderbilt, José focused his research in controls, mechatronics and mechanical design. After obtaining his Ph.D., José worked in the Fluid Power industry designing servo-pneumatic control systems for various motion-control applications, such as packaging, automation, and animatronics. In the fall of 2011, José became an assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering at Western New England University, where he now teaches various courses in solid mechanics, mechatronics, and first-year engineering.

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Opportunity Thinktank: Laying a foundation for the entrepreneurially minded engineerDesign projects have become a principal element of the undergraduate engineering curriculum.Recently, using the KEEN philosophy, there is momentum to push engineering education furtherby fostering an entrepreneurial mindset among students. Providing a basic set of engineeringskills in specific specialty areas of study is no longer sufficient. Engineers design solutions formarketplace problems. As such it is imperative that they approach the marketplace in search ofopportunities for which they can design break-through solutions. This is the mindset of theentrepreneur. The need for entrepreneurial thinking is pervasive among businesses, which haveturned to design firms such as IDEO to develop the next break-through, blockbuster solution formarketplace opportunities.We focus on opportunity identification and have named our process the Opportunity Thinktank.The “Thinktank” provides preparation required for identifying great, new design solutions. Itinvolves research that provides a foundation upon which ideation and design can take place.This is an introduction to a different way of thinking than students are use to in their requiredengineering coursework. Looking for opportunities requires examining the marketplace throughan entrepreneurial minded lense to identify the most pressing problems. This entrepreneurialmindset focuses on understanding and empathizing with the person facing the problem. Thisunderstanding provides the foundation on which ideation takes place, we call them “bugs.” If theopportunity and the client is not fully understood, much ideation and design time will be wastedgenerating marginal and incremental solutions destined for the dust bin.This paper outlines a set of seven modules that help to establish an entrepreneurial mindsetamong undergraduate engineering students. The Thinktank begins with students observing theworld around them, identifying areas within their major area of study that create pain points forconsumers, business or society in general; this is a micro to macro examination and we willgenerally refer to any one of these areas as the “client.” After identifying opportunities for whicha design solution may be suitable focus shifts to understanding their client. Often students, notjust engineering, are given a problem and they want to start generating ideas before they fullyunderstand the problem or their client’s experience. Developing empathy for the client’ssituation is a fundamental ingredient for creating effective design solutions to the client’sproblem. Empathy arises from structured research process that includes traditional secondaryand primary research techniques. Collecting backstory information on their client begins withlibrary research to understand the appropriate behaviors to observe and questions to ask, Theprocess then moves to observing the client’s experience with their pain point. Observing is notenough, students need to at least talk with the client and, if possible, experience the pain pointthemselves. All through this process students are stating and revising their problem statementsas they collect additional information. The Thinktank concludes with a final revision andrefinement of the problem statement that reflects their empathetic understanding of their client’spain point and preparation for the next phase of the process, ideation.The Opportunity Thinktank brings together and introduces undergraduate engineering studentsto critical knowledge in entrepreneurship, marketing and research methods they may not beexposed to in the standard engineering currciulum. The final paper will discuss the sevenThinktank modules and the knowledge drawn upon to develop them. Further, implementationexperiences will be discussed.

Gettens, R., & Spotts, H. E., & Riofrío, J. A. (2015, June), Opportunity Thinktank: Laying a Foundation for the Entrepreneurially Minded Engineer Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24545

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