Thompson Centre launch to further Engineering education

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Success, John Thompson warned, takes more than a great idea.

“People think that if they have a great product that it is going to sell itself. They think if it is exciting enough, innovative enough, that it is going to set the world on fire. Not so,” said the one-time highest-ranking Canadian executive at IBM.

“Success only comes when a great idea is surrounded – surrounded by great marketing, great distribution, great services, great business partners. On and on. Only when you put that together can a product be truly successful. It needs cross-pollination, if you will.”

In support of furthering great ideas, Western recently announced the launch of the John M. Thompson Centre for Engineering Leadership and Innovation.

Five years in the making, the centre provides a home for Western Engineering efforts to combine traditional technical training with competencies, capabilities and next-generation skills to place graduates at the forefront of the industry.

To further those efforts, Western also announced a new research chair and a student innovation fund.

The chair, the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation, was established through an investment from John, BESc’66, LLD’94, and Melinda, BA’64, Thompson, along with funds from Western. A member of the Thompson Centre, the chair will join the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering. This interdisciplinary appointment will also teach at the Ivey Business School.

The John M. Thompson Innovation Fund will support Engineering students with early stage ideas, prototype building, start-ups and engagement with experts in the field.

In addition to engineering principles, Thompson said, skills involving leadership and innovation, along with supporting skills like communications, teamwork and business awareness, are increasingly at the core of success for tomorrow’s engineers.

“Those broader skills, that knowledge helped me when I stepped into the business world. I attribute much of my success to balance,” said Thompson, citing his study of arts and social science, in conjunction with engineering.

With that belief at heart, the Thompsons made a previous investment in 2014 to incorporate business and entrepreneurial education into the Engineering program, including the integration of Ivey’s case method of learning. As part of that, the John M. Thompson Chair in Engineering Leadership and Innovation was created to bridge Engineering and Ivey.

Entrepreneurship professor Darren Meister has been that bridge, as the inaugural holder of the chair.

“Western Engineering obviously delivers the technical training,” he said. “But we push students on leadership; we push them on creativity; we push them on innovation; we push them on dealing with customers and managing teams. In that process, they find out what they are really good at – maybe in areas they never knew they were good at because they never played that game before.

“It is remarkable how many people already say this is making them look at life differently.”

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In five years, Western has remade what its Engineering training looks like by developing a Certificate in Engineering Leadership and Innovation; revitalizing the core of the Integrated Engineering program; integrating business into first-year core curriculum; revitalizing a fourth-year ethics, sustainable development and law course; delivering selected business programming for research graduate students; and contributing to the student community through entrepreneurial and other activities.

As part of his role, Meister created a product innovation course within Ivey and Engineering. It is a unique setting, he said, where he teaches the course in separate faculties from radically different perspectives, but brings the two groups together five times a year to work on a joint project.

The Thompson Centre provided infrastructure to make that happen, Meister said.

“This started out as an idea on paper,” Thompson said. “Five years later, we have had great success with the courses being taught, the students, and now bringing the subject matter down to first- and second-year students. We were not sure of if people would be interested in it.

“Now we can start to cement some of those ideas.”

Going forward, Thompson sees the centre as a way of differentiating Western from other universities in Canada by making it a destination for a more progressive kind of engineering education.

Meister agreed. “We want students thinking about connections. We want people to do what they do really well. I want them doing that. But I also want them thinking about how that idea connects to business, how it connects to the entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

The Thompsons are longtime supporters of Western, funding scholarships and awards as well as campus-defining structures like the Thompson Engineering Building. They also have two children who are Western graduates.

Thompson most recently served as Western’s 20th Chancellor from 2008-12, in addition to serving on the President’s Council, chairing the Western Engineering’s Advisory Board and co-chairing Western’s Renaissance Campaign from 1989-94. His professional career has included leadership positions with IBM and TD Bank Financial Group.