A Legacy of Engineering Education

John Ochs, founder and director of Lehigh’s Technical Entrepreneurship capstone program and director of the master’s program in technical entrepreneurship, prepares to retire after 40 years at Lehigh.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

John Ochs

John Ochs, founder and director of Lehigh's Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) program and director of the professional master's program (M. Eng) in Technical Entrepreneurship, will retire this year after 40 years at the university. 

Whenever Professor John Ochs walks around Lehigh’s campus—as he has done quite frequently for nearly 40 years—he likes to help visitors who appear to be lost.

Recently, Ochs noticed a car with an out-of-state license plate as it pulled to the curb near the Wilbur Annex. He walked over to offer directions.

“The woman rolled down the window and looked at me and said, ‘Professor Ochs! ... I took your class in 1980, the first CAD-CAM class. I was a female engineer. I took the class, and it has driven the rest of my entire professional life,’” Ochs recalls.

The woman, it turns out, didn’t need directions at all: She was picking up her daughter, a student at Lehigh.

“I said, ‘Well, you just made my day.’ To me, that’s what’s important,” says Ochs.

That influence, which Ochs has had over countless students, is a hallmark of a career dedicated to engineering education. Ochs will retire in 2019 after four decades at Lehigh. Those many years, he says, have presented him with “the opportunity to impact both how I teach and how students learn.”

As the founder and director of Lehigh's Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) program and director of the professional master's program (M. Eng) in Technical Entrepreneurship, Ochs’ impact is without question.

“If John were in charge of engineering education in America, it would be a transformation. It wouldn’t be just what we’re doing right now,” says his close colleague Jerry Lennon, past deputy provost for academic affairs and college associate dean, and current professor of water resources engineering.

John Ochs

Ochs was presented with a ROCK STAR award at the Kern Engineering Entrepreneurship Network (KEEN) National Conference earlier this year. 

A Passion for Teaching

Ochs arrived at Lehigh in 1979, having just completed his Ph.D. in acoustics at Penn State. The university was looking to increase its capacity for design and hands-on lab opportunities for students, and Ochs’ unique background and experience fit the bill.

While at Penn State, Ochs had become involved with a National Science Foundation grant to teach speech pathology and audiology students, who typically don’t have much background in mathematics,  the fundamentals of acoustics, which involves a great deal of math. The team decided to use computer graphics to help students understand key concepts. They developed their own computer animation software and began animating fundamental acoustics equations so the students could visualize the phenomena of sound and vibration. At the same time, Penn State was exploring computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) technology.

“There were no CAD-CAM systems anywhere in academia,” Ochs says. “They were being used by aerospace companies, and so I saw this as a great opportunity. I was teaching speech pathology and audiology at Penn State at the time, the fundamentals of acoustics, and I enjoyed teaching. So I basically said, ‘I’m not going to go into industry, I'm going to teach. I want to teach.’ I was not interested in doing research. The only research I was interested in doing was: How do I become a better teacher?”

Ochs accepted a position as a tenure-track faculty member at Lehigh, charged with developing the university’s labs and improving its approach to design education.

“I was hired to improve the quality and the content of our curriculum,” he says.

Computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing courses at Lehigh began soon after Ochs’ arrival, with the addition of CAD-CAM systems to the mechanical, industrial and civil engineering departments. This kicked off an evolution of engineering courses at Lehigh.

“Once you design it, now you want to make it. And so now you want to introduce into the curriculum manufacturing,” Ochs explains. He and John Coulter, professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics and now associate dean for research and operations, took courses at MIT to develop a manufacturing course for Lehigh.

‘Failure Is a Great Teacher’

Ochs’ knowledge of CAD-CAM technology enabled him to run and engage other faculty members in teaching short courses for industry as well as serve as a consultant for various companies. These industry contacts also provided opportunities for Ochs to develop his own entrepreneurial expertise through the formation of several companies, including one that rose from a grant Ochs received from Johnson & Johnson to shorten the manufacturing time of surgical instruments, another that involved a smart neonatal incubator that would stimulate a baby who had stopped breathing to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and a third that brought him back to the field of acoustics with the development of an all-plastic electric violin, the Spitfire. Some ventures were more successful than others, says Ochs, but all offered valuable learning experiences.

“[There is] a lot of learning in the process,” he says. “Failure is a great teacher.”

Ochs also continued his consulting work for Johnson & Johnson, which included assisting bringing to market a device called a coronary stent, used in balloon angioplasty procedures of which, he says with a chuckle, he is “now the unfortunate possessor of four.”

Extensive exposure to industry applications of technology, says Ochs, provided “many, many opportunities to do real-world engineering kinds of projects, all of which I brought back into the class.”
Real-World Experiences for Engineering Students

Ochs took over Lehigh’s existing engineering capstone program in the early 1990s. Then, in 1994, along with Todd Watkins, now executive director of Lehigh’s Martindale Center for the Study of Private Enterprise and director of the Microfinance Program, and Berrisford Boothe, associate professor of art, he piloted the Integrated Product Development (IPD) program. The program started in earnest with nine students in 1996.

Today, the IPD program is known as the Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) capstone because of a shift in students’ interests away from industry projects and toward more entrepreneurial ventures.

“We found that a typical engineer/business major would want to fit in somewhere,” explains Ochs.
“They want to be in technical sales, they want to be in manufacturing, they want to be involved in the design stage. But now we had a whole class of students who wanted to develop their own products.  They are our next generation of entrepreneurs.”

The TE capstone program consists of a set of courses available to students from any Lehigh college as well as opportunities to work with students from other disciplines on a real-world, industry-sponsored or student-startup project. Today, the program has 230 students on 31 teams working on 25 projects. Sabrina Jedlicka, associate professor of materials science and bioengineering, now serves as director.

“It’s not enough just to innovate,” says Ochs. “You have to, in fact, commercialize that innovation. If you have patents that just sit on the shelf that are unique innovations, who cares? We need the people who will lead the process to bring that to the market. And those are called entrepreneurs.”

Ochs’ dedication to and passion for education has prepared many of those entrepreneurs for real-world success.

Marco Perry ’92, founder of the product design firm Pensa, was a mechanical engineering major when Ochs began offering pilot courses in IPD and mechanical engineering design, but at the beginning, the courses would often be cancelled due to low enrollment. When Ochs finally launched the IPD program, Perry had already graduated.

“I was really jealous of younger students who had the ability to take that program,” says Perry. “Since I didn't want to give up, I went to a design graduate program and pursued design engineering, mostly driven by my passion to invent and everything I learned from the classes that John taught. I found everything I learned in his classes to be so fascinating and his teaching style so easy to learn from. Complex concepts were broken down into simple-to-understand English. We mostly learned how to think, how to approach a problem and that opened many doors in my career.”

Ochs has since invited Perry to speak to his classes about the design process he uses at Pensa.

“I try to convey that everything they are learning from John's classes are actually used in a professional practice,” Perry says.

Pat Clasen ’04 ’07G , director of finance for the reef aquarium company EcoTech Marine, participated in the IPD program in its earliest days, and there he met his business partner, EcoTech Marine president, Tim Marks ’04 ’06G. Marks was the program’s first full-time graduate student.

“We were engineering students and had an idea for an aquarium product,” recalls Clasen. “I got a flier at one of my classes that told us about an ‘invitation to innovate’ at the time, which was a scholarship to work with the IPD program and work with other students on a project of a business idea of your own making. We ended up applying for that, and that took us to a business.”

The team’s first project didn’t go anywhere, says Clasen. “We didn’t sell it. It wasn’t until our second idea that we came up with and prototyped that we had any commercial success.”

The team persevered. Today, EcoTech Marine employs more than 50 people in the Lehigh Valley.

Ochs, he says, believed in those who were passionate about what they were doing.

“There were many times throughout our careers where people thought, ‘Okay, these guys want to make equipment for aquariums. Well, that can’t be a very big market. That might not work so well.’ But John believed and John was supportive throughout the years of us developing the company,” he says. “And it enabled us to get to where we are.”

John Ochs and Jodie Johnson

Ochs and Jodie Johnson, assistant director of the technical entrepreneurship program and KEEN coordinator, dressed up as Santa after a TE master's cohort final and held a "Santa-off." 

Clasen calls Ochs “the grand orator of the IPD seminar.”

“John, in my opinion, is a visionary and one of the kinds of folks that could see the bigger picture of how innovation and creativity fuel businesses and design and product development. And he was really an architect at Lehigh of what has become an enormous, successful program. As a result, he has been a well-respected and well-loved man.”

Expanding Entrepreneurship at Lehigh

The late 1990s and early 2000s were a time of significant growth for entrepreneurship at Lehigh. The university in 1999 started the Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE) Honors Program at Lehigh, and Ochs taught that first-year course for its first five years. In 2002, Lehigh launched an entrepreneurship minor with the infrastructure in place to support student-driven projects. In 2003, Ochs and his colleagues moved from a cramped space in Packard Lab to a newly renovated Wilbur Powerhouse, which Ochs calls “a place for where design and entrepreneurship meet.”

At that time, Ochs also helped start the Entrepreneurship and Engineering Innovation division of the American Society of Engineering Educators. Through that he met Robert Kern, founder of the Kern Family Foundation and the Kern Engineering Entrepreneurship Network (KEEN), a network of schools committed to developing an entrepreneurial mindset in engineering students. Ochs brought Lehigh into the network.

“The mindset [KEEN is] focusing on is defined specifically as reawakening creative curiosity, pursuing collaborative connections, and creating value,” says Ochs. “You want to engage faculty who truly believe in teaching and teaching undergraduates and the high-quality teaching of undergraduates, and they know it’s worth the effort.”

Lehigh is in the final phases of a four-year grant that supports engineering faculty as they develop new modules for their courses and share them across the KEEN network. Lennon was one of the first faculty members Ochs recruited to participate in KEEN.

“[Ochs is] the type of person that can motivate 75 engineering faculty—more than half—to do something that we recognize we ought to be doing, in my opinion, but isn’t on the high priority of what you get rewarded for … Few people can get over half of the engineering faculty to do something that’s low on their official recognition list,” says Lennon.

Ochs became an associate of the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity & Innovation, which was endowed by Dexter Baker ’50 ’57G ’81H in 2010. The Baker Institute is dedicated to the advancement of entrepreneurial education for the entire Lehigh community. Todd Watkins served as its first leader, followed by Lisa Getzler, both with the aim of infecting Lehigh students with an entrepreneurial mindset.

2011 saw Ochs begin the master’s degree in technical entrepreneurship (TE), a one-year, 30-credit professional master's program open to students with any type of undergraduate degree. He spent a year traveling and researching the best schools for student startups before building a dedicated curriculum focused entirely on how to launch a business.

“When you sit back and look at startups, we have an entire infrastructure in this country for research-based commercialization,” says Ochs. “... Everything is focused on research-based commercialization because everybody wants the next Gatorade or the next whatever. They’re rare. But we have a mandate and it makes sense to have our faculty thinking in terms of how to commercialize their research. But then, from my experience working as an entrepreneur and working with various students in IPD and TE, there was nothing there for regular students.”

Lehigh’s master’s degree in technical entrepreneurship program, now in its seventh cohort, has seen the launch of over 30 companies.

“In one year you have to create a new product and launch a new business,” says Ochs. “If you have an idea for a product, [if you are] just interested in learning more about it, in one year you’ll do what we call ‘learn by launching.’ You will launch a new business, you’ll create a new product or service. And you have to do it to graduate.”

The office of Jodie Johnson, assistant director of the technical entrepreneurship program and KEEN coordinator, provides plentiful evidence of these student business ventures. Student product samples adorn tables, shelves, and even the walls of the space. Johnson says she witnesses Ochs’ influence on a daily basis.

“He’s had a huge impact on students that have taken the TE Capstone and TE master’s programs,” she says. “There isn’t a day that goes by that someone from up to 20-plus years ago sends a note or drops in—even former international students visiting the States take the time to stop in—to say, ‘Thank you! … I am where I am today, because of the courses you taught.’”

Johnson is personally thankful for Ochs’ mentorship as well.

“I have been here a long time and have learned so very much from him over the past seven years working with him. He has helped me grow professionally by being by his side on a daily basis. The history and knowledge he has of the university is remarkably amazing. He goes directly by the book … He’s helped write that book, so [he] knows it front to back and always seems to have the right answer or solution. His passion and purpose are completely geared towards the students and wanting them to succeed.”

Mike Lehman, professor of practice in mechanical engineering and mechanics, came to Lehigh to help launch the master’s degree program.

"When I first met John in 2003 at the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) annual meeting, he was an instant mentor, sharing his experiences and approaches to innovative education models,” says Lehman. “Joining John at Lehigh to launch the master’s degree in Technical Entrepreneurship will always be a career highlight—I learn something new from John every time we speak."

‘Reinvent Yourself at Lehigh’

Lennon recalls Ochs’ exuberant presentations at admissions information sessions for high school students and parents—presentations that no other faculty member wanted to follow.

John Ochs

Ochs says his four decades at Lehigh have presented him with “the opportunity to impact both how I teach and how students learn.”

“He’d thunder out and captivate the audience, saying things like, ‘Innovation occurs at the intersection of disciplines.’ ‘Unleash your creativity!’ ‘Reinvent yourself at Lehigh!’” says Lennon.

It would seem that Ochs, in some ways, reinvented himself at Lehigh, and he is proud of what he’s built at the university. But when asked about his proudest accomplishment, he does not hesitate: “That’s simple: It’s my wife. She’s been my partner for 50 years. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me … We have three boys, seven grandchildren. And it’s the most important thing I ever did. Period.”

“He’s a wonderful man and I have been blessed to have found this guy,” his wife, Anne, says. “… It’s been an amazing, joyous ride. Professionally, I think he’s a good man, but also a great role model as far as how to be a good husband and a good father.”

Ochs has long offered this challenge to his students: “There’s no better social impact than creating jobs for both yourself and other people. So that’s the challenge: I’m challenging you to take what you’ve got here in this environment and turn it into your personal portfolio of new products and new ventures so that you can lead the next generation of student entrepreneurs.”

Upon his retirement, Ochs plans to build houses for Habitat for Humanity. He’s ready for the change, and the timing couldn’t be better. Years ending in nine, he says, are good years for him: he was born in 1949, he met Anne in 1969 and came to Lehigh in 1979. He’ll retire in 2019.

“It’s time to let other people—the next generation—figure out how to keep improving engineering entrepreneurship  education, and I wish them all the best,” he says.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

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