COMMENTARY: It Takes More than Genius Entrepreneurs to Drive Nation’s Economy

By Dr. Mel Schiavelli
Dr. Mel Schiavelli
Dr. Mel Schiavelli
Peter Thiel – founder of the New York-based hedge fund Clarium Capital, co-founder of PayPal, and an early investor in Facebook – has established a foundation to give 20 $100,000 grants to teenagers who would drop out of high school and pursue an ambition of becoming world visionary entrepreneurs.

To Thiel, and other contemporary thinkers concerned that economic progress is impeded by the lack of innovation, college in the 21st century has become outdated, its institutional thinking sclerotic. Education’s relevance to economic and social demands is viewed through 20th, if not 19th century, lenses by many of the higher-ed institutions that were founded in those centuries. 
Consider Mark Zuckerburg. When he started Facebook in his Harvard University dorm, the school immediately shut down the site because the response to it overwhelmed the university’s server (not to mention complaints from students about their photos being used without permission). Clearly, an institution founded in the 17th century didn’t know how to handle a 21st century entrepreneur and his invention.

While it may be possible to find 20 teenagers who are smart enough, ambitious enough and disciplined enough to create new businesses that bring positive change, they would be a rare breed, and even if they were not, ultimately they would still benefit from a post-secondary education.

For all its faults, the post-secondary credential remains critical to the nation’s as well as an individual’s growth and prosperity. Geniuses, young or old, can’t work through problems and discover solutions from inside a bubble, even if it is a $100,000 bubble. Before publishing his theory of relativity, which enriched physics and astronomy in the 20th century, Albert Einstein earned a four-year degree to teach mathematics, helping launching his career as a theoretical physicist.

Thiel is correct that colleges have become moribund in how they prepare students for today’s high-tech economy that has seen great innovations and promises more. We agree with him that the nation needs different models for higher education. As computer technology advances, rapidly and with no end in sight, in the last half century it has created a different world with societies and people connected at work and play and daily living. And it does so in a multitude of ways unimagined just 15 years ago. It is time for higher education to advance and adapt to reflect this new order.

Institutions like Harrisburg University of Science and Technology are being built with these realities in mind. They design curricula intended to gird and inspire students entering the technologically advanced economy emerging in the world today. Founded in 2001, Harrisburg University focuses laser-like on science, technology, engineering and math – the STEM subjects – through classroom experience and experiential learning, the philosophy of learning by doing.

However, Thiel is incorrect in his assumption that the nation needs only a group of genius entrepreneurs. It also needs skilled gold-collar workers to build, operate, maintain and repair those technological innovations. And at the core of educating and training those workers are STEM-focused institutions such as Harrisburg University.

To understand why the STEM subjects are critical for future entrepreneurs with world visions, consider Gordon Moore, Intel’s co-founder. In 1965, he noticed that the number of transistors placed on a computer’s integrated circuit had doubled every two years since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958. Moore predicted this would continue for “at least another 10 years.” However, that trend continues today, unabated, and Moore’s prediction has become “Moore’s Law.” Computer technology gets smaller and faster with each passing year. Its capabilities seem unlimited, but we need educated and trained workers and entrepreneurs to capitalize on those new capabilities.

Harrisburg University also is unique in that it turned to local industries and businesses to help map out its academic programs. These businesses are reliant on a future workforce possessing the skill set acquired through STEM curricula so there is integration between academics and industry.

The classroom links with internships, co-ops and job sharing to provide real world experience long before entering the workforce. Students apply classroom learning in the field. HU assigns students to a local company in their field of study – from biotech laboratories to hospitals to manufacturers to breweries. A business mentors program pair students with professionals in their career field. Mentors introduce and guide their protégés through the professions they are pursuing in study. The employment rate for HU students upon graduation is 92 percent. That’s the kind of education program that drives the economy and spurs innovation.

STEM curricula through 21st century institutions such as Harrisburg University will not only provide the gold-collar technical worker for our economy, but also the entrepreneur. And it won’t cost $100,000.

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 Dr. Mel Schiavelli is president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in PA.  Founded in 2001, Harrisburg University is the only private non-profit STEM-focused comprehensive university between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, PA.

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