The Wood Enterprise Institute at Virginia Tech
Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship Experience-Based Learning
The Wood Enterprise Institute (WEI) at Virginia Tech has been recognized and is regarded as a leading student learning environment for creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
The Wood Enterprise Institute is a student-run, faculty-supported organization at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia. WEI was created in 2007 and has since grown in recognition as a premier learning venue for creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and business leadership. WEI focuses on developing exceptional human capacity for value creating organizations through a student learning experience that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship as a complement to a strong technical foundation built at Virginia Tech. Learning and problem-solving goals are accomplished through a rigorous two semester team-based experience to align many business functions such as market research, finance, design, engineering, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, and logistics. Since WEI functions as a student-owned and-operated business, the team strives to set high performance targets and to execute the many business functions in a way to create value with minimal wasted effort. Exceptional learning experience comes as the team is challenged to focus on customer service and to continually improve business functions to minimize costs and risks associated with myriad supply, capacity, and market uncertainties. Perhaps the most important learning aspect the team understands is that human capacity is the business’s greatest asset and, therefore, a business can only achieve its maximum potential through a profound respect for all involved.
The Wood Enterprise Institute is currently operated in the Innovation & Design Laboratory and Classroom located at the Brooks Forest Products Center at Virginia Tech, which provides nearly 6,000 square feet of dedicated and flexible work space for product design, production, and supporting business operations. An additional 4,000 square feet of shared space is located adjacent to the Innovation & Design Lab, houses the Brooks Center’s woodshop and machine shop areas. WEI is organized as a 501(c)(3) student-owned business. With advice from faculty and professional mentors, students design, make and sell products to customers while managing the business’s administrative functions and cash flow. With this framework, students are able to take ownership of their learning experience by improving their business.
From engineering aspects focused on creating innovative, more “sustainable” components for residential housing and home furnishings to aesthetic design aspects directed toward creating furniture and art décor, there are existing models offering educational programming in the U.S. and in Europe to benchmark. These programs usually focus on specific areas in creativity, design, and innovation. A noteworthy similarity among successful programs is that they employ experiential learning in their teaching technique; that is, “learning by doing” through actual work experiences such as design projects, competitions, in-service training, or internships.
Designing effective learning experiences for business leadership and entrepreneurship requires working within an actual business to assess its constraints, propose improvements, lead people to implement improvements, and then keep score to determine how successful business functions are improved. Such experiential learning can be provided through business simulations in the classroom or through internships within a business. With internships, typically the business objectives supersede the student’s learning objectives and hence it is difficult to efficiently manage learning from a pedagogical viewpoint. For experiential learning to be most meaningful, students must truly believe that they own or are responsible for a business and that there are consequences (other than a poor grade) if they don’t perform at an acceptable level.