It has been almost three years since my first blog post for Wharton Magazine, in which I described my experiment teaching a one-semester course in all things business to a group of science and engineering students.
Five semesters in, my course, Entrepreneurship in Biotechnology, has grown to over 400 students. My quaint seminar, which I had hoped would attract eight people when I composed the original course outline, had grown into one of the largest single section classes at Columbia University. I teach from a stage, with a microphone clipped to my lapel, and use modified online Google forms to give standardized self-grading mass exams. Student evaluations are very good and the administration is pleased.
But underneath the surface I feel ambivalent about much of what has taken place in the classroom. I feel like I have taught my students a lot, but have missed an opportunity to teach them much more, given the large number of hours that we have collectively committed. The problem? The class got too big. Too much talking to the backs of computer screens and the tops of heads bowed nose-to-phone. Too many people led to too much passivity, apathy and an overemphasis on the transactional nature of our work together: Figure out what it takes to get an “A,” do it, get the good grade and move on.
So it’s time to scrap the original class plan and approach the course differently. Next semester, I plan to limit the class to 12 students, who will be admitted only after submitting an idea for a business. Attendance will be mandatory and phones, tablets and computers will be banned from the classroom. Grab a notebook and a sharp pencil and let’s get to work.
The course will be much less didactic and more participatory as we create businesses around the students’ ideas and form partnerships, S corporations and LLCs; formulate pitches and funding strategies; tackle provisional patent applications; and decide how best to demonstrate proofs of concept. At the end of the semester, instead of Google autograding 100 multiple-choice questions 400 times, I will be poring over 12 business plans, making comments in the margins about how well the paragraphs and pages in the blue exam book take an abstract idea and turn it into something tangible and real.
Will next semester’s course be a better class? Maybe, maybe not. But with the classroom as our laboratory and the modified curriculum in our lab notebooks, we will continue our experiment in education, science and entrepreneurship.