Schooling Australia’s future entrepreneurs

Schools are using entrepreneurship as part of their education programs. Photo: iStock

Schools are using entrepreneurship as part of their education programs. Photo: iStock

Schools and universities are fostering the “startup stars” of tomorrow.

Ten years ago, learning about a “startup” at school usually involved the science behind a car engine. In recent years, however, it’s taken on a whole new meaning in education.

More and more students in primary and secondary schools – as well as universities – are learning the skills they need to become successful entrepreneurs through start-up businesses or social enterprises.

These are skills that educators are recognising as must-haves for young people entering the workforce in Australia and internationally.

Mentone Girls’ Grammar and The Knox School are two schools which have introduced entrepreneurialism to their curriculums. Mentone Girls’ also recently built an Enterprise Academy, which runs entrepreneurial programs and encourages students to meet the challenges of the future workforce.

The Knox School has started offering Young Entrepreneurs’ Scholarships to encourage students to pitch ideas and give them a small amount of seed funding for startups.

Principal Allan Shaw says the school is also offering entrepreneurship as a year 9 elective for the first time this year. He says the course emphasises “doing rather than reading.”

“The students will drive projects within the school or develop business concepts of their own,” he says. “Their focus will be on developing valuable entrepreneurial skills, such as business planning, marketing and project management.”

Assessment will involve “360-degree feedback” on students’ success, skills and involvement in their projects, Allan says.

At Mentone Girls’ Grammar, the Enterprise Academy has its sights set firmly on the future of the students and of the school itself.

Principal Fran Reddan says one of the academy’s purposes is to “provide a prototype of how schools should be – environments that harness both formal and informal opportunities for learning”.

“This world of artificial intelligence, globalisation and flexible work requires that women have the skills, capabilities and mindset to see possibilities, seize opportunities and to make a difference,” she says.

While the focus has been on future careers, Mentone Girls’ is also concentrating on student pathways to university and how entrepreneurial skills prepare them for higher learning. “Universities are recognising that, apart from a much better user experience, they need to better prepare students for the new economy,” Fran says. “We have seen a rise in entrepreneurialism courses, as well as generators or transformers that provide informal spaces for students to test out their enterprising ideas.”

Universities have become incubators for startups, providing opportunities for seed funding, advice and business partnerships through accelerator programs.

The University of Melbourne’s MAP (Melbourne Accelerator Program), Deakin University’s Spark, and Monash University’s The Generator all offer young entrepreneurs the chance to learn and turn their ideas into innovative, money-making ventures.

Last year, Melbourne University introduced a master’s of entrepreneurship to encourage postgraduates to learn what it takes to set up a successful startup and keep it going.

Like the secondary-school programs, the masters degree aims to teach students by getting their hands dirty – learning through successes and failures.

Melbourne university’s MAP program was established in 2012 by electrical and electronic engineering professor Thas Nirmalathas. To date the program’s startup accelerator has mentored close to 200 founders, supported 24 startup companies and offered masterclasses and feeder programs to a budding entrepreneurial community of more than 4000 university students, staff and alumni. This year, the accelerator is supporting 10 teams.

University of Melbourne's professor Thas Nirmalathas. Photo: supplied

University of Melbourne’s professor Thas Nirmalathas. Photo: supplied

The university has also helped entrepreneurs in the wider community. Among the 7000 people who have participated in its start-up initiatives, are the founders of several successful businesses including Nura – a new company that produced headphones that learn and adapt to people’s specific hearing needs. The company recently raised $1.8 million through a kickstarter campaign (an Australian record for crowdfunding).

Thas says it’s this type of creative and entrepreneurial thinking that will be needed by students across Australia and globally in the future.

“The nature of work is changing and the entrepreneurial mindset can give them an edge in a rapidly changing employment environment,” he says.

“Future graduates, in addition to their specific domain (subject) knowledge, need to develop attitudes and greater enthusiasm to positively respond to the fast pace of change, develop new skills and display resilient characteristics like perseverance, speed and leadership.

“An entrepreneurial mindset and skills can help them in a range of contexts … even if they are unlikely to immediately be involved in a startup.”

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