Patterns of Errors in Engineering Students' Entrepreneurial Decision-Making
Ongoing efforts seek to develop engineering students into entrepreneurially minded engineers. Often, work to achieve that goal relies on theories drawn from entrepreneurship research from business disciplines to develop interventions and ground research on engineering entrepreneurship education. However, despite repeated warnings by multiple scholars, there has been limited evaluation of whether such theories are appropriate to design interventions or understand the development of students’ entrepreneurial expertise. Theories of entrepreneurship developed in the field of entrepreneurship typically make several assumptions or research design choices pertinent to their usefulness in education. Those assumptions include assuming those studied make no errors, building expert-comparative rather than expert-novice theories, and mythicizing and reifying certain types of entrepreneurs. One such theory, the Theory of Effectuation, is representative of these assumptions as well as being commonly used in entrepreneurship education as a model of correct decision-making. Prior studies have used the Theory of Effectuation to compare experts and students and track students’ growth, but have presumed error free reasoning by both experts and students.
My dissertation focuses on empirically evaluating the appropriateness of one assumption from the Theory of Effectuation when applying the theory to engineering students’ decision-making. The assumption I focus on is what errors engineering students make when working on typical early stage entrepreneurship decisions. The existence of such errors would call into question whether the Theory of Effectuation, which does not allow for such errors, can usefully describe engineering students’ decision-making. Interpreting the resulting errors can also help educators inform educators about pre-existing knowledge and beliefs that students bring to entrepreneurship classrooms. This can enable the design of more effective research studies and interventions to improve the state of the field
To do so, I completed a verbal protocol study with engineering students at two universities. The verbal protocol used is based on one previously used to develop the Theory of Effectuation and asks participants to think aloud while making decisions typical of an early-stage entrepreneurial venture. I then coded the transcribed data from those protocols for conceptual errors related to business and management concepts. A thematic analysis of the results showed several consistent patterns of errors. Those included misinterpreting market research data as representative of their company’s financial performance, misunderstanding and using faulty analogies to analyze different outside investment options, and perceiving that they would personally receive all proceeds from a company’s sale. In general, two overarching patterns emerged – overestimating the value of their venture and overestimating their control.
I end by interpreting the results through three existing areas of literature to provide new knowledge to engineering entrepreneurship educators. First, the patterns of errors appear similar to other misconceptions in that a potential alternative ontology that students rely on may exist in mythicization work, however more evidence is necessary to formally establish that the patterns of errors are in fact ontological miscategorizations. Second, the patterns of errors are strikingly similar to the myths about entrepreneurs that have been identified in media and research that reports on entrepreneurs. This suggests a specific source of students’ preconceptions about entrepreneurship that educators should actively engage with. Third, the findings validate existing theoretical critiques of how entrepreneurship theory is used in engineering education. Specifically, theories developed in entrepreneurship literature appear to be a poor fit for engineering education research because of their embedded assumptions.