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January 08, 2014

Bill Aulet gives a tour of the entrepreneurship center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Aulet says entrepreneurship education is still in its infancy. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH).

Educators estimate nearly 25 percent of college students want to be entrepreneurs. That's why more programs that teach entrepreneurship have emerged in academia.

But can it be taught? Most people don't spring out of the ground fully formed as a savvy entrepreneur, so a main challenge is teaching people how to become one — or become a better one.

It's near the end of the semester, and MIT professor Bill Aulet is helping his students shred their business plans so that their ideas can't be stolen. Then he advises them on how to get those ideas off the ground, into the global marketplace.

"This is how you go up the ramp of entrepreneurship education," he tells his students. "You start with an idea, a technology, an inspiration."

Aulet manages the MIT Center for Entrepreneurship. When he first started his work here, the former professional basketball player admits he wasn't sure whether entrepreneurship was something that could actually be taught inside college classrooms. Now, four years later, he's convinced.

"The way we look at education in a more holistic way, where you do projects, there is no doubt in my mind that it can be taught,” he said.

Students here at MIT take a project-based approach, developing fully formed business plans complete with profit projections.

Not all schools do this, but Aulet says they should.

"Professors need to ask their students, 'What's your idea?' and 'How important is it?'" he said.

Then, he says, students should go into the field to find investors.

"It's not an equation, but there are frameworks like in other professions that tell you how to properly do it," he said.

Listen to Kirk's extended interview with MIT's Bill Aulet on WGBH's The Takeaway:

Today more than 5,000 courses offered at some 2,600 colleges and universities cater to students who want to be entrepreneurs. Despite that boom, Dane Stangler, with the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, says those courses haven't had any effect on the rate of business creation, which has actually gone down over the past 20 years.

"It's possible they've kept the rate from falling further, but it certainly hasn't raised the overall rate of entrepreneurship," Stangler said.

Still, Stangler believes there’s real value in entrepreneurship teaching and training. In fact, he says, most of us need it. And he says that although the one-in-a-million innovators like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg didn't need a classroom, they had one common trait that we can study: perseverance.

"Entrepreneurship is constantly two steps forward, one step back," he said. "It takes resourcefulness, because you're constantly dealing with scarce resources, whether that's money, time or people."

Students work on their business plans at the entrepreneurship center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH).

Back at MIT, senior Theodora Koullias is putting the final touches on her proposal.

"I think we've been up officially 28 hours by now working on this business plan. We haven't slept," she said. "We're creating a brand that focuses on fashion technology, and one of our first products is a handbag that can charge your devices for two weeks without ever needing to plug them in. "

Koullias says among students there's a lot of pressure to find the next big thing — the next innovation.

"If you're at MIT and you're not starting a company, there's something wrong with you," she said.

Entrepreneurship courses have allowed her to think about how to build a business and consider what she wants to do when she graduates.

"I think the beauty of entrepreneurship is that you can do what you're passionate about, but the pain of it is that you're always going to be working," she said.

Lawrence Neeley teaches entrepreneurship at Olin College in Needham, Mass., where it's required. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH).

Some schools feel this is so important that they've taken it to the next level. Olin College in Needham may be an engineering school, but it requires students earn at least one credit in entrepreneurship.

After class, Professor Lawrence Neeley says some colleges and universities overemphasize certain skills, like perseverance.

"If I look at the skills that all students have sitting in front of me, they have these different skill sets to different degrees, and you're trying to develop in each of them the ones that are going to help them get all the way," Neeley said.

Neeley and other professors agree: Colleges are still in the infancy of teaching entrepreneurship as a discipline.

And as the cost of college increases, schools will have to prove the value of these courses.

new business models, MIT, higher ed, entrepreneurship, global competitiveness

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