Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Why Engineering Students are Reluctant to become Entrepreneurs: Role of PEC and Universities

Presented at ICEE-2016, International Conference on Entrepreneurial Engineering: Commercialization of Engineering Projects and Research

There are several reasons why Engineering students in Pakistan have been found to be reluctant to opt for entrepreneurship in their engineering fields as opposed to other disciplines such as Computer Science. These reasons can be classified in five major categories; (i) cultural and family mindset, (ii) demographic pressures (iii) narrow focus of curriculum, (iv) teaching and lab methodology, (v) enabling and facilitation environment.  Pakistan Engineering Council has a major role to play in at least the last three areas. The curriculum design and enforcement of PEC has left no room for subjects that can broaden the vision of the students and open their minds to other areas. The recommended lab methodology is based on the use of trainers and fill-in-the-blank type of submissions that further constrains the work of the students in predetermined directions. The recommended teaching methodology focused on class-room type of work also leaves no room for out-of-the-box exploration of ideas. There is a need for the universities and PEC to join together to provide an enabling and facilitation environment that can help the students. There is a need to diversify the curriculum to other areas by reducing the number of technology intensive areas and more creativity and exploratory courses that can broaden the perspectives. There is a need to adopt new methodologies such as project based learning and problem based learning. The lab work needs to be liberated from the clutches of the trainers. A post graduation apprenticeship or internships in exploring new ideas is necessary for entrepreneurial engineering. 

The Case for Engineering Entrepreneurship

Cultural and Family Mindset

"Education for Job" has been ingrained in our cultural consciousness since early 19th century that took on a social and cultural movement after the war of independence of 1857 when the Muslims of India led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan made wholesale shift towards the acquisition of education and learning of English in order to get a foothold in the government jobs. This movement was a reaction to the threat of oblivion of Muslims if they did join the government dispensation as Hindus were already eclipsing them in governmental decision making bodies and forums. Led by these moves, situation had improved considerably by the end of colonial rule, and Muslims were adequately represented in the government. However, this threat of oblivion passed away with the departure of colonial masters in 1947. It is now 69 years since independence but we still seem to be living in the late 19th century. Government jobs or jobs in big companies still represent security and safety net for most communities except the business communities of Memons, Chiniotis and others.


Historically and culturally, Hindu bania and businessmen were looked down upon. Mathematics and Sciences were subjects reserved for Hindus. Muslims used to opt for arts and literature especially poetry. The way Mirza Farhatullah Baig describes the business practices of his teacher Deputy Nazir Ahmed in his famous book "Deputy Nazir Ahmed ki Kahani, kuch unki kuch apni Zabani" at the turn of the 19th century into 20th century indicates the prevalent views. See for example the metaphor (muhawara) "Baniya ka baita kuch dekh kar hi girta hai". The acquisition of money was equated with loan sharks and Muslims proudly displayed their disdain for business ventures. This used to be the situation till the 1970s. There used to be only two professions for Pakistanis; Engineering or Medicine. Those who could not get into these coveted professions were left with lower level jobs. However, this started changing in the 1990s and 2000s. The advent of this century has now much increased the attractiveness of entrepreneurship.
But this message will take another generation or two to become the prevalent mindset. The persistence of the old mindset is due to the demographic pressures.

Demographics Pressures on Engineering Students

A demographic analysis of the business vs engineering disciplines indicates that students typically joining the business disciplines belong more to the higher demographic level than the engineering students. Engineering students typically belong to lower or lower-middle class. The reason being that their families still consider engineering profession to be a guarantor of job, and hence a guarantee to financial security and safety. Family circumstances of these demographic levels do not allow them to think big. Their immediate concern is to climb out of the survival stage. They are more worried about meeting the two ends meet, rather than on taking risk on bigger more ambitious projects. Typically family responsibilities neither provide them the space nor the flexibility to take the risk of shifting from one business venture to another with no guarantee of monthly meals.

Removing this fear and guaranteeing the students through the enabling environment described below would only enable them to experiment with their own ventures. 


  • See Entrepreneurship for the 21st Century
  • Which Field of Great Scope Should I Choose for My Son/Daughter

  • Another factor in determining the mindset is the typical school curriculum that depends upon rote learning, which does not prepare the students for creativity or thinking out of the box for solutions. Thus, they continue to move in the well worn out directions of government jobs followed by private jobs. The environment had convinced them that survival with heads down in their job will take them to success.

    Narrow Focus of HEC Curriculum

    How Schools Kill Creativity is among the most celebrated Ted Talk that outlines what is wrong with our curriculum and our schooling philosophy. Curriculum focused on predetermined lesson plans and the space filled out with subjects that provide no relevance to the practical realities of problems around us is the major problem for imprisoning the minds of the engineers in the straight jackets. Many good US universities have a major non-technical component in their bachelor degree programs that is focused on broadening their visions, opening their minds to cultural, social and historical issues. At UT Austin, BS in Electrical Engineering program has 30 credit hours of liberal arts contents which is non-technical (neither mathematics, science, or engineering). Such kind of a content enables the students to mingle with students of other disciplines, have discussions that cross interdisciplinary boundaries and given them the ability to think out of the box.
    Essential Skills for Engineering Entrepreneurship


    HEC approved curricula are mostly the regurgitation of the curricula that existed thirty years ago. They provide neither the opportunity to the students to explore other areas nor enable the opening of their minds to look at things in the way general people see.

    HEC must free the engineering curricula from the straight jackets of the predefined names of the courses and should focus on a specification of course concepts that universities should be able to configure into courses of their choice.

    Teaching Methodology and Lab Methodology 

    Lab Manuals and Lab Trainers are typically fill-in-the-blank variety. A variety that has been termed by academics like Frank Smith as "Insult to Intelligence". They force the students to just fill in the blanks. This was never the objective of the experiments. Experiments and lab work is about exploration of variables and their relationships. Testing of relationships that are given in the book as well as experimenting with those relationships that are not given in the book. The objective of lab work was to develop the capacity for observation, measurement and experimenting with different arrangements of devices and circuits. Today the lab manuals and trainers teach the student that things can only be connected in the ways given, and could only be measured using the built in devices. They are not allowed to experiment with out of the box ideas. PEC needs to clamp down on such insult to intelligence types of trainers and methodologies.

    Teaching methodology which also includes grading structure is another straight jacket that binds the teacher in doing things in predictable and standardized manner leaving no room for the teacher to experiment with new ideas, new methodologies of teaching irrespective of whether the student is learning and motivated to learn or not. Biggest damage done to teaching is by the use of power point presentations which many academics now think should be banned.

    There is now need to provide space to the teachers to experiment with new methodologies including PBL: Project Based Learning and Problem Based Learning and other experiential learning methodologies.

    Enabling and Facilitation Environment

    This environment consists of: 
    • Allowing the teacher to experiment with new learning spaces. There needs to be a flexibility to take the classes in innovative surroundings and places. 
    • Allowing the teacher to flip the classwork with home work.
    • Allowing the teacher to experiment with new grading techniques like Formative Assessments, Self Assessments, Rubrics Based Assessments, Portfolio Based Assessments, Peer Assessments and some combination of theses. See Grading vs Motivation
    • Statistical quality control measures like the Bell Curve Assessments needs to be thrown out. This is no longer used in the industry for quality control. This is the era of TQM, six sigma and zero-defects. Would a factory survive if its output quality control is based on bell curve? See Who Fails when a Student Fails
    • See the Problems with Bell Curve Assumption
    • Allowing the school to design integrated curriculum and enable holistic education.
    • Allowing the courses to be designed as project intensive courses. 
    • Enable an environment where students can spend time as internees or apprentices for the development of their projects into commercial projects. This can be through an incubator or collaboration with industry organizations. 

    See Also: 

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