Teaching entrepreneurship? Yes we can.

March 30

Reading the cover story of last week’s Capital Business (“Educating tomorrow’s entrepreneurs”) echoed what I had seen at the recent South by Southwest Edu conference, where I took part in a panel called “Student Startups: The Ultimate Educational Experience.”

I was intrigued when I realized the audience for the panel was nearly 75 percent K-12 educators — not the higher ed audience I and the other panelists were expecting. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The piqued interest for primary and secondary educators is exciting and encouraging, especially from where I sit.

I run the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. We’re one of more than 200 entrepreneurship centers at colleges and universities nationwide, where entrepreneurship and innovation have long been a focus. But the way you teach entrepreneurship in academia is different from the way you should teach entrepreneurship to younger students.

Here, we are focused on helping students start and grow ventures, with the real goal being finding the next generation of entrepreneurs who are learning through the start-up process. The rest of the world may be focused on the businesses, but we are really focused on creating entrepreneurs. Even our upcoming Cupid’s Cup competition, happening April 4 here at the university, is really less about the businesses and more about the students running them and inspiring the would-be entrepreneurs in the audience to take risks.

K-12 educators can look to higher ed for models and examples, but at that level, entrepreneurship education should be about teaching students how to think like entrepreneurs rather than teaching them how to actually build a business. School systems should concentrate on teaching students the skills that make for successful innovators and entrepreneurs: problem-solving, creativity, tolerance for risk and no fear of failure. The goal should be to build up an appetite for entrepreneurship, where higher education can eventually become the bridge to venture creation. This might require changing the rubric a bit within school systems. Entrepreneurship education should be part of science, technology, engineering and math curriculum initiatives.

Teaching entrepreneurship should be like teaching other subjects: You don’t start with calculus in first grade (otherwise, you’d have a lot of first-graders hating math). If we want this country to be all about creating new business, we have to find the right pedagogy for entrepreneurship. If we try to focus too fast on venture creation, students’ appetite for failure might be so low that they get turned off. It needs to be challenging but attainable.

We could have even more of an amazing impact here at the Dingman Center and at other universities across the country if in these transitional college years, students coming in have already been exposed to the critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills, risk-taking and failure. Just like we take raw high schools students and turn them into professionals who can take on the world, I can only imagine what we could do if all students came in with an entrepreneurial mind-set.

Universities have been tackling teaching entrepreneurship for years and are continuously doing a better job of it. Now to see that there are organizations driving this interest in K-12 education is truly exciting. Clearly, this is the next frontier of entrepreneurship.

Elana Fine is the managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. The center hosts the ninth annual Cupid’s Cup competition April 4, www.cupidscup.com.

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