Entrepreneurship for Mathematical scientists

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In this post, John Pearson tells us about two courses in the School of Mathematics specifically aimed at exposing students to entrepreneurship and empowering them to apply their innovative ideas and expertise to the real world. Dr John Pearson is a Reader in the School of Mathematics↗️ at Edinburgh. This post belongs to Teaching Matters’ Learning & Teaching Enhancement theme: Embedding enterprise in the curriculum↗️.

An exciting new endeavour at the School of Mathematics in Edinburgh was the creation of two courses which embedded entrepreneurship and enterprise into the School’s curriculum. These were “Entrepreneurship in the Mathematical Sciences↗️”, a later-year undergraduate course which was created by Francis Greene (University of Edinburgh Business School) and myself in 2018 and which I subsequently ran with Joanna Young (Electv Training), and “Entrepreneurship for Mathematics PhD Students”, created by Joanna and myself in 2021 as part of the curriculum for the new Maxwell Institute Centre for Doctoral Training in Modelling, Analysis and Computation (MAC-MIGS)↗️. These courses brought together my experience of applicable mathematics and working with industry, and Francis and Joanna’s substantial expertise in entrepreneurship and start-up development.

Currently in its sixth year, and with which I was involved until 2020, the undergraduate course was a completely new direction for the School of Mathematics, with aspects of teaching and learning which were radically different to other mathematics courses at that point.

We introduced a series of industry case studies to give an idea of how the mathematical sciences can be usefully applied to solve real-world challenges. 

Topics included the mathematical algorithm behind PageRank in Google, mathematical modelling with a motivating application of water filtration devices, optimal scheduling for hydrothermal power plants, and the prediction of user trends and ratings using the “Netflix Prize” as an example. A dual aim of these case studies was to offer inspiration for students’ business ideas, with a message that a good business idea identifies the right problem for the customer, and offers an effective solution. At the end of the course, student groups would give “business pitches” for their hypothetical start-up propositions.

The course also involved novel group-work exercises to encourage the development of start-up ideas, the incorporation of guest lectures from industrialists and entrepreneurs, and the preparation of feasibility reports on the business ideas. Alongside these new developments for the School, during the course we presented students with tools and frameworks for understanding aspects of entrepreneurship: for example, idea generation, safeguarding business ideas, implementation and execution of business ideas, customer segmentation, and competitor analysis. We provided additional inspiration through further business case studies, and outlined the concept of a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, with Edinburgh a fantastic example of a city with a rich environment for start-ups.

By contrast, the PhD course was an intensive 4-day programme, following a similar outline to the above but with no industry case studies. Once again, students developed their own business ideas inspired by the mathematical sciences, pitching these ideas at the culmination of the course. Three MAC-MIGS cohorts have taken the course to date. The lecturers of the undergraduate and PhD courses very much enjoyed seeing the development of the students’ ideas through to the point of the  pitches.

Overall, the aims of the courses included communicating the sizeable impact of the mathematical sciences and the value of students’ degrees in the real-world, teaching skills which were unique to this course with the objective of increasing employability, and facilitating experiential learning through devising and pitching new business ideas. These aspects were successfully incorporated, and the course provided experiences which were utilized in job interviews and our students’ future endeavours. We hope that the course has inspired students to consider entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship in their careers.

photo of the authorJohn Pearson

Dr John Pearson is a Reader in the School of Mathematics at Edinburgh. He received his PhD from Oxford in 2013, and after a Whittaker Fellowship at Edinburgh and a Lectureship at Kent he returned to Edinburgh in 2017. He is interested in applied and computational mathematics, including interdisciplinary and industrial subjects, and leading from these interests he co-created the course “Entrepreneurship in the Mathematical Sciences” at his School in 2018. Following on from this course, and the successful bid for the MAC-MIGS Centre for Doctoral Training, he co-devised the course “Entrepreneurship for Mathematics PhD Students” in 2021.

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