Professor John Ochs reflects upon four decades of teaching innovation at Lehigh

If you’re looking for an opportunity to innovate, head to the spaces where disciplines intersect.

That was among the advice mechanical engineering professor Dr. John Ochs gave faculty and students during his so-called exit seminar on November 30. As he prepared for his official retirement at the end of 2018, Ochs, an award-winning innovator in curriculum and program development and the director of Lehigh’s Technical Entrepreneurship program, took attendees on a tour of his 40-year teaching career and the development of the university’s “innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

“You want to be in the most multidisciplinary environment you can. Those are the ones that create the best innovations,” says Ochs. “I have been very lucky here at Lehigh to be involved with multidisciplinary projects in the very beginning, and I have surrounded myself with people who have skills very different from mine but have been able to add to the whole innovation process.”

Ochs joined Lehigh University's Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics department in 1979 and founded and directed its Computer-Aided Design Labs. Beginning in 1996, he directed Lehigh’s innovative Integrated Product Development (IPD) program, which evolved into the highly-lauded Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) Capstone program; he also served as founder and director of its TE Master’s program. Ochs helped to shape the mission of the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) when it was launched just over a decade ago, and has served as Lehigh’s point person in leveraging its toolkit toward innovating student learning environments. He was also an associate of the university's Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation.

“Through his mentorship, efforts in program and curricular development, and guidance in engineering with an eye toward real-world impact, John has positively influenced the future of countless students, especially Lehigh engineers,” says Steve DeWeerth, professor and dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science. “We wish him the very best as he embarks upon a well-deserved retirement.”

During the seminar, entitled “Yesterday and Today, Tomorrow Is Up to You,” Ochs stressed that innovation can happen anywhere along the continuum of product development and shared his core belief that “innovation fueled by creative curiosity is this generation’s most important economic development engine.”

He drove home the point with examples, flipping through slide after slide of student entrepreneurs who over the years had turned their ideas—from new technology for saltwater aquariums to video sharing on social media—into functional companies.

“What do all these student entrepreneurs have in common? They came to Lehigh not to get a job but to create their own job,” says Ochs. “They came here to define their own futures.”

Ochs urged faculty to support the “learn by launching” entrepreneurial mindset while measuring their impact as educators through the lens of their students’ successes.

“It’s not about my work, it’s not about your work, it’s not about our teaching, it’s not about our research. It’s about our students’ learning,” he says. “It’s about how our students perform and how our students’ accomplishments are recognized. And I hope that you will take on the challenge of making sure that our students, undergraduate and graduate, have the capability to not only survive, but to grow and prosper going forward.”

Ochs officially retired on December 31, 2018.

John Ochs exit seminar

Professor John Ochs gave his "exit seminar" in advance of his retirement from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics at the end of 2018.

“You want to be in the most multidisciplinary environment you can," says Dr. John Ochs, "Those are the ones that create the best innovations."