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Engineering the entrepreneurial mindset

Carolina’s Department of Applied Physical Science wins two grants from the Kern Family Foundation, building on its applied sciences and engineering minor and wider efforts to highlight entrepreneurial-minded learning and problem-based education at UNC-Chapel Hill and beyond.

It’s no secret that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of America’s top-ranked research universities. But with more than 200 years of research under its belt, how does the University help students and faculty move that research into the world faster and with greater impact? Although there are numerous ways to do that, the UNC College of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Applied Physical Science (APS) is equipping its students and faculty with an entrepreneurial mindset to gain greater perspective and ingenuity from research experiences inside and outside the classroom.

The APS department spans science and engineering, combining knowledge and discovery with a problem-solving mindset, team-based science and entrepreneurship to address real-world challenges. The department puts that mission into action by offering top-notch problem-based learning and hands-on training as well as the development of an entrepreneurial mindset for students through its minor in applied sciences and engineering. APS has been able to implement these initiatives with the help of a partnership with KEEN, the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network, and support from the Kern Family Foundation.

“Our focus is helping students develop an entrepreneurial mindset,” says Rich Goldberg, teaching associate professor and director of undergraduate studies for the APS Minor in Applied Sciences and Engineering. “In the research lab, things don’t always go as planned, and there has to be room for successes as well as failures along the way. We help prepare students for tackling these open-ended problems where there may be a lot of unexpected twists and turns.”

“Students coming into research experiences may not know where to begin,” adds Megan Morin, UNC-Chapel Hill’s KEEN program coordinator who also works with faculty to integrate entrepreneurial-minded learning. “They may assume they have the skill sets for how to do a literature review or how to find resources. However, teaching them the entrepreneurial mindset of curiosity, connections and creating value not only prepares them for research experiences, but also helps them develop lifelong skill sets that will be valuable to their engineering education.”

Making research accessible to all students

Two key grants that the department recently received from the Kern Family Foundation are bolstering these efforts for APS and the applied sciences and engineering minor: the Research For All (R4A) grant and an EMERGE grant.

The Research For All (R4A) grant provides $2.02 million among eight institutions for three years, with $374,000 coming to APS for the “URSkilled” program, a collaboration between UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina A&T University and Campbell University.

“We want to make research accessible to all undergraduates, especially with the research requirement that is part of the new undergraduate general education curriculum,” says Goldberg. “Through this initiative, we’ll develop a number of workshops and other activities that help prepare students with an entrepreneurial mindset so they can be successful in the research lab.”

As part of the URSkilled program, the APS team will develop training programs at BeAM@CAROLINA so that students learn how to combine their design and making skills with an entrepreneurial mindset to be more effective in the research lab. BeAM is the network of makerspaces for faculty and students who want to join the Carolina maker community in the design and making of physical objects for education, research, entrepreneurship and recreation.

“What’s interesting about our grant is that it’s truly accessible for all,” says Morin. “Having North Carolina A&T and Campbell University in the program really is representative of what we’re doing. Many times students aren’t aware of these opportunities, and this grant will provide tools and resources that are truly inclusive for all students.”

“We help prepare students for tackling open-ended problems where there may be a lot of unexpected twists and turns.” – Rich Goldberg, Ph.D.

Developing new engineering education programs

The department is making great strides with its new minor in applied sciences and engineering. The minor builds on a foundation of math and science, and engages students in hands-on applications of real-world challenges. Students also develop an entrepreneurial mindset through building their curiosity about the world, finding connections that integrate knowledge from a variety of fields, and learning to identify unexpected opportunities to create value.

“We’re giving students the skills to think creatively, make connections between different applications and also have a focus on creating value,” says Goldberg. “Creating value is not just creating something economically valuable. It’s creating something that’s useful.”

The EMERGE (Entrepreneurially Minded Engineering Resource Group for Educators) grant is for $365,000 over four years and is a continuation of APS’ work with the Olin College of Engineering to lead a cohort of new and emerging engineering programs from around the country. EMERGE is a national community of faculty and staff who are starting or have recently started new engineering programs – including APS – and brings the shared expertise of the group to provide advice and feedback. Faculty from Olin College are the lead facilitators, and they have the experience of starting their own innovative engineering program about 20 years ago.

“We’re one of 50 institutions around the country that are KEEN partners, which gives us a platform to demonstrate what we’re doing, particularly in how we incorporate our makerspace into our academic mission,” says Goldberg. “Our involvement with KEEN and EMERGE gives us an opportunity to lead, while also learning from other programs. This national platform has really helped put UNC on the map as a place where some innovative things are happening.”

For more information about the KEEN program, visit For more information about the APSE minor, visit

Photo by Andrew Russell