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Product Based Education

PBE provides an alternative to current academic capstones, allowing students to gain essential skills to thrive in modern businesses.

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Product-Based Education (“PBE”) aims to offer an alternative to existing academic capstones, going beyond research-based theses and outcome-based projects. The goal of PBE is to offer students an opportunity to be engaged in the product development lifecycle and to gain valuable technical, social, and business skills needed to thrive in the modern knowledge economy, and allowing them to enter the workforce with the necessary experience to succeed in their careers and beyond.

PBE is all about process and execution. Students learning under the Product Based Education model will not only gain the competency to innovate using technology, but will also become practical business leaders. After all, turning an idea into reality requires successful business and technical execution of the idea.

PBE is ideal for students who are self-directed, highly motivated and eager to push the threshold of what is possible in their studies. It requires a willingness to be adaptive and to do what is necessary to “get the job done.” Students with disabilities and non-traditional learners can benefit from PBE as it provides an opportunity to leverage a diverse set of skills, abilities, and learning styles. Students can safely test new modes of working and study through PBE, because of the flexibility provided by the program.

Optimally, students leading a PBE capstone will spend 1.5-2 semesters working on a product, in order to gain experience and familiarity with several stages of product development. At the end of a PBE session, students are encouraged to stay involved in the product. Students who only wish to be involved in one component or stage of product development are encouraged to join as interns to the product team.

The internship component of PBE allows student leaders to gain experience in mentoring, coordinating, and leading peer efforts, with the guidance of a faculty advisor, similar to leadership roles in industry. For the interns, the opportunity provides valuable non-academic work experience (while still being a student at the university); the internship program is most similar to a co-op that lasts a few months.

PBE is modeled loosely after the structure of high tech startups. Teams of roughly 2-4 people, with one or two clearly delineated leaders and/or visionaries, work together to ideate, build, release, sell and grow a new product. Ideally, products created through PBE involve significant technical, engineering, or design skill, in order to accurately reflect the complex and dynamic nature of product development in industry.  Focus should be placed on building a business venture that is competitive in a market beyond the institution where the product originated.

Students are not only required to develop business and technical strategies, but to also carry them forward. One of the key aspects of PBE is execution; for example, after creating a marketing strategy, students learning under PBE then must implement that strategy. They may spend time recruiting customers individually, creating advertising campaigns (and actually advertising), collecting data about customer interactions and developing insights on that data.

Adaptiveness is fundamental to success with PBE. New business ventures rarely get everything right from the beginning and most undergo some form of pivot (or many pivots) during their early stages. Students under the PBE model will need to iteratively develop their business ventures, by engaging with prospective customers and investors, learning from those interactions and improving (or changing) their direction.

Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine higher education to support the needs of tomorrow?

Our idea is designed for: universities; professors and educators; and students (graduate / undergraduate). It helps students gain valuable technical, social and business skills needed in modern businesses. For students who are not best defined by traditional academic means, especially including students with disabilities and non-traditional learners, PBE provides an opportunity to differentiate oneself and offer employers unique value that best accentuates their way of working and learning.

This idea emerged from:

  • A group brainstorm

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Guidance is needed on making the idea more universally appropriate, especially within the realm of liberal arts and non-technical education. We’d also appreciate input on how to evaluate and measure success with a PBE capstone, especially with regard to traditional academic grading systems, since legitimacy in a university or higher education setting is contingent on the ability to evaluate student performance. Other feedback is welcome and encouraged.

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

We are currently testing the idea with a senior-level thesis project (Major Qualifying Project) at our university (Worcester Polytechnic Institute). Our project, WorkHero (, combines the technical, business, and human aspects of innovation - much like a new business venture would. The goal of our project is to both assess the viability of Product Based Education and to build a self-sustaining venture that can support future student learning.

Tell us about your work experience:

Soussan is an associate professor at the WPI. She leads the User Experience and Decision Making (UXDM) lab at WPI and advises WorkHero. Ryan is a Senior at WPI and the Backend + DevOps Lead for WorkHero. Outside of school, he is an entrepreneur working on an enterprise collaboration startup that is expected to launch soon. Tim Marschall is a Senior at WPI and the UI/UX Lead of WorkHero. Previously he has been a developer in a startup connecting project opportunities with skilled teams.


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Photo of Ina Agnew

Ryan, one of the things I like best about your proposal is the social skills development.  Our industry partners tell us the soft skills are sadly lacking in today's graduates.  When our technical program students complain about having to take liberal arts classes/general education, we tell them that their technical skills will help them get the interview, but it's their soft skills that will get them hired and promoted.

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