Jonathan Leinonen, principal lecturer in the Michigan Technological University College of Business, is a 2021 Engineering Unleashed Fellow.
This year, 27 individuals from higher education institutions across the country have been named fellows by Engineering Unleashed (EU). The designation recognizes leadership in undergraduate engineering education. The honor, which encompasses research plus funding, will go far in continuing to differentiate Michigan Tech’s business program for its business-STEM interface.
In this Q&A, Leinonen describes the opportunity, his work and what the EU fellowship means for business students, Michigan Tech and the region.
Engineering Unleashed (EU) is a community of 3,800 faculty members from 340 institutions of higher education. It’s powered by the Kern Family Engineering Entrepreneurship Network (KEEN), a 50-partner collaborative that shares a mission to graduate engineers with entrepreneurial mindsets who are equipped to create societal, personal and economic value. In 2019, Michigan Tech became the 42nd university accepted into KEEN, a great honor for all of campus.
Q: Jon, congratulations on being named an Engineering Unleashed Fellow! How’d you get involved in the EU community?
JL: Thanks! The seed for the fellowship process was planted as I worked with a group of innovative faculty from across campus with a vision to promote an entrepreneurial mindset throughout Michigan Tech. Once I learned what Engineering Unleashed is all about, I began to realize that a lot of what we teach in the College of Business is in line with KEEN.
In the process, I took Engineering Unleashed Faculty Development workshops that were designed and delivered by a group of subject-matter experts who serve as faculty members at more than 25 institutions. The workshops attract faculty participants from across the country, focusing on the development and application of an entrepreneurial mindset in teaching and learning, research, industry or leadership.
Q: What do you do in your day-to-day work?
JL: As a principal lecturer within the College of Business, my main focus is on teaching business management courses. Prior to this, I worked in industry for about 20 years, which sensitized me to the needs of businesses to develop a holistic view to problem-solving. To complement my teaching, I also work with entrepreneurial and economic development groups that include Michigan Tech’s entrepreneurial support programs, Michigan Small Business Development Center, the Finnish American Chamber of Commerce for the Upper Peninsula, MTEC SmartZone and Portage Health Foundation.
Q: What opportunities does this fellowship open up for you?
JL: Working in the midst of this ecosystem allows leverage across my roles for class projects, research and community impact. The support from the KEEN fellowship has materially advanced the under-resourced college student dialogue with stakeholders, identified new research opportunities for students and is leading to material outcomes that demonstrate our capabilities as a University and within the College of Business. As we show success in these areas, students are eager to learn and be involved in research, the community becomes more engaged and opportunities open up across the board. I am one to look ahead and often ask what’s next. I’m eager to see this project bring in more students and opportunities to engage the community with new value.
Q: What’s your project about?
JL: I applied the entrepreneurially minded learning (EML) framework from Engineering Unleashed to work with students to submit a project to the Undergraduate Research Internship Program (URIP) through the Pavlis Honors College. EML is the collective process of instilling curiosity and discovery, developing insight and creating value through experiential education. We secured funding to hire two students with additional support from the Dean’s Advisory Council in the College of Business and the Portage Health Foundation. Those students worked to prepare two reports that identified resource needs specific to students in the western Upper Peninsula.
An example of the need we are addressing is the number of college students who have been diagnosed with conditions such as anxiety, depression and chronic pain. Students who lack the resources to handle these diagnoses face a much greater challenge to learning. Another is the cost of college where students are not able to access available grants or benefits they may be eligible for. Helping students to identify and access the available resources is an ongoing need we are looking into.
Right now we’re completing our first cut of informational videos and a draft of the regional scholarship program.
Q: Where did you get the idea?
JL: In my Introduction to Business course, some students expressed an interest in research, so I attended the Engineering Unleashed workshop on entrepreneurially minded student research. The focus of our project is to assist under-resourced college students, which is related to a community-wide poverty assistance initiative being led by Portage Health Foundation that I am also involved with.
Q: What challenges have you encountered?
JL: As I brought more students into working on the project, one of the challenges was to maintain focus. We started to get into resource needs that include food security, safe and affordable housing, various aspects and access to health care, communication with stakeholders and more, in addition to finances.
In our fall class, we constrained our scope to communication with stakeholders through informative videos to high schools and also community representatives. We also had another group focused on researching and documenting a business model based on best practices applicable to the western UP for a regional scholarship program.
Q: How will students benefit from this?
JL: Concepts discussed in the classroom have little value unless we can help someone improve their life at the end of the day. Students are gaining hands-on experience with a variety of business concepts with the promise of also helping future students as a result of their work. Through this project, we followed students’ curiosity in research and applied it to a regionally significant challenge.
I surveyed students from my class after exercising the entrepreneurial mindset. Eighty-five percent of respondents indicated they either agreed or strongly agreed that they are better prepared to handle a future complex project, they are more proficient with skills and ability to conduct research, they can see how their work leads to broader community and societal benefits, and their efforts will make a material benefit to the lives of other people. Altogether, the students not only helped the project, but are more capable to carry these skills forward for future impact.
The group interviewed high school and college students and administrators, community representatives and government officials. They are working on videos for social media to communicate the needs and ways for people to become more involved in supporting students.
Another group of students prepared information to develop a regional scholarship program. The students’ goal is to develop a plan to seed, build and operate a community-based scholarship program for the western Upper Peninsula.
I anticipate that future student projects will be able to work on more specific facets that were identified along the way, including resources to support students’ mental and physical health, support for navigating the college administrative processes and also further engagement with the scholarship program.
Q: You also serve as co-director of Husky Innovate and vice president of Superior Innovations. How does EU coalesce with those initiatives?
JL: Michigan Tech has an amazing team of entrepreneurially minded people. As students develop their entrepreneurial interests, Michigan Tech provides people and programs to meet them at every step of the journey. Students shape and test their ideas, secure development resources, build out their team and business model, and set themselves on the path to entrepreneurship. I often say that success has a lot of people’s fingerprints on it, and the team here is as good as anywhere to help dreams become reality.
About the College of Business
The Michigan Tech College of Business offers undergraduate majors in accounting, construction management, economics, engineering management, finance, management, management information systems and marketing, as well as a general business option. Graduate degrees include the TechMBA®, a Master of Engineering Management, a Master of Science in Accounting and a Master of Science in Applied Natural Resource Economics.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.