College and Business Will Never Be the Same: Philadelphia University Integrates Design, Engineering and Commerce


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departments and specialties. (At Stanford, the D-School offers graduate students in engineering, medicine, business, humanities, and education an interdisciplinary way to learn design thinking and work together to solve big problems.) This isn’t as easy as it sounds as some of the traditional disciplines date back centuries (with tenure, hierarchy and tradition just as old.)

Philadelphia University Integrates Design, Engineering and Commerce

At dinner, I got to hear about how Philadelphia University was tackling this problem in undergraduate education. The University, with 2600 undergrads and 500 graduate students, started out in 1884 as the center of formal education for America’s textile workers and managers. The 21st century version of the school just announced its new Composite Institute for industrial applications.

(Full disclosure, Philadelphia University’s current president, Stephen Spinelli was one of my mentors in learning how to teach entrepreneurship. At Babson College he was chair of the entrepreneurship department and built the school into one of the most innovative entrepreneurial programs in the U.S.)

Philadelphia University’s new degree program, Design, Engineering and Commerce (DEC) will roll out this Fall. It starts with a core set of classes that all students take together; systems thinking, user-centric design, business models and team dynamics. These classes start the students thinking early about customers, value, consumer insights, and then move to systems thinking with an emphasis on financial, social, and political sustainability. They also get a healthy dose of liberal arts education and then move on to foundation classes in their specific discipline. But soon after that Philadelphia University’s students move into real world projects outside the university. The entire curriculum has heavy emphasis on experiential learning and interdisciplinary teams.

The intent of the DEC program is not just teaching students to collaborate, it also teaches them about agility and adaptation. While students graduate with skills that allow them to join a company already knowing how to coordinate with other functions, they carry with them the knowledge of how to adapt to new fields that emerge long after they graduate.

This type of curriculum integration is possible at Philadelphia because they have:

1) a diverse set of 18 majors, 2) three areas of focus; design, engineering, and business and 3) a manageable scale (~2,600 students.)

I think this school may be pioneering one of the new models of undergraduate professional education. One designed to educate students adept at multidisciplinary problem solving, innovation and agility.

College and business will never be the same.

Lessons Learned

  • Most colleges and Universities are still teaching in narrow silos
  • It’s hard to reconfigure academic programs
  • It’s necessary to reconfigure professional programs to match the workplace
  • Innovation needs to be applied to how we teach innovation

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Steve Blank is the co-author of The Startup Owner's Manual and author of the Four Steps to the Epiphany, which details his Customer Development process for minimizing risk and optimizing chances for startup success. A retired serial entrepreneur, Steve teaches at Stanford University Engineering School and at U.C. Berkeley's Haas Business School. He blogs at Follow @sgblank

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  • Dr. JimHoyt

    I have an undergraduate degree in Physics and was an engineer (Mech, Nuclear and Electronic)for 15 years. I then earned my MBA and then my doctorate in business admin Univ Texas 1996). I teach at Troy Univ. and I agree with you whole heartedly. Business students have no engineering savvy and engineers have minimal business knowledge. (Nor do they care to have any.) This is due primarily to basic differences in personality and their intrinsic “needs”. Anything you can do in this area would be wonderful and I’d like help in any way I can.

    Dr. Jim Hoyt, Assoc Prof of Management