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Teaching Techies Some Business Skills


With underemployed recent college grads struggling to make payments on their crushing student debt, starting a new graduate school might be considered an exceptionally foolhardy move. Undaunted, Cornell has created an innovative new applied sciences program that we think provides useful lessons for higher ed institutions pondering their future. The NYT writes it up:

Not long ago, three young high-tech entrepreneurs sat with the students, talking about failure. They talked about questionable technical, financial or personnel decisions in start-up businesses they had created or worked in, about companies they had seen disintegrate, and about detours into projects they later discarded. […]

Scenes like this play out each week at Cornell Tech, part of an unorthodox curriculum designed to eschew the traditional detached, highly academic approach to learning. Instead, business, technology and real-world experience is baked into the coursework. […]

Reinforcing the sense that the work produce practical results, the United States Commerce Department has stationed a patent officer on the premises to help with patent applications and commercial strategies — an arrangement that federal officials say is a first.

A business class is mandatory, in addition to the usual technical courses. And the students are required, in each semester, to work with mentors from the private sector to design and create new products. Two of the students, Alex Kopp and Andrew Li, are working with a Google engineer on open-source software that predicts the severity of weather events.

This all sounds pretty good to us. When we’ve covered the decline of higher ed before, we’ve noted that schools as we know them won’t entirely disappear. But if they want to fulfill their mandate to prepare the next generation for 21st century careers, they need to do a better job integrating instruction on useful skills into their curriculum.

The Cornell program teaches its students computer science as well as business, when in other, more traditional programs these two fields may never intersect. We hope to see more of this kind of approach throughout undergraduate and graduate programs. STEM skills are important, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. Even technical people need to gain real world entrepreneurial experience in order to prepare for the challenging job market.

Cornell Tech is in its early stages, and it might still fail. But this is the kind of cross-disciplinary, skills-based, project-oriented approach that we think just might be the key to higher ed staying relevant in the future.

[Circuit board brain courtesy of Shutterstock]

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