WASHINGTON — John LaPides leans back in his chair and watches as the next young entrepreneur takes a seat across from him at a long wooden table.

A student assistant sets a timer for 10 minutes, and Pitch Dingman, a weekly speed-pitching session at the suburban University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, begins.

“This is really in the ‘written on the back of a napkin’ phase,” warns Yaella Landeau, 22, a pre-dental senior, before pitching an idea for artisanal homemade vanilla extract packaged in pretty bottles.

LaPides, one of the center’s “entrepreneurs in residence,” nods enthusiastically as Landeau describes how the bottles would help distinguish the product. He tells her that companies such as Celestial Seasonings have succeeded in selling products with whimsical packaging, and peppers her with questions about the manufacturing process and competition until the stopwatch hits 60 seconds.

“One minute,” the student assistant says quietly. “We should talk about next steps.”

LaPides wraps up quickly; there’s a line of other student entrepreneurs waiting to pitch their own business ideas. Over two hours, roughly two dozen students file in.

Similar scenes are playing out on college campuses nationwide where an explosion of new pitch sessions, business plan competitions and entrepreneurship courses is catering to a new kind of student entrepreneur.

Driven by a desire to find personal fulfillment along with a paycheck, and by a sour economy that makes traditional employment seem just as risky as starting a business, members of the so-called millennial generation, the 20-something children of the baby boomers, increasingly are forgoing traditional career paths and hatching business plans based on social responsibility and their own interests and ideals.

“The down economy has made students realize that there may not be a cushy job at the end of this rainbow,” says Asher Epstein, managing director of the Dingman Center. “So they’re taking their destiny into their own hands.”

The idea that entrepreneurship is something that can take place, and be taught, on a college campus isn’t new.

Most entrepreneurship educators believe the first formal entrepreneurship class was for Harvard MBA students in 1947. Entrepreneurial education gained momentum in the 1960s, and by 1985, more than 250 entrepreneurship courses were offered at colleges nationwide, according to the Kauffman Foundation, a research group focused on entrepreneurship.

Since then, “the number of entrepreneurship programs has quadrupled and quintupled,” says Eric Martin, co-director of the Galant Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Virginia.

At Georgetown University, there’s a business plan competition along with a nine-credit entrepreneurship certificate program and a first-year seminar on entrepreneurship.

It’s a big change from when Neil Shah and William Huster, now 23 and 24, respectively, founded a fair-trade tea company as Georgetown freshmen. The business failed within a year, and Shah and Huster were left wishing they could have learned the basics in the classroom rather than an unforgiving marketplace.

So as juniors, along with co-founder and classmate Arthur Woods, they started a new business: Compass Partners, an incubator for student entrepreneurs offering a two-year entrepreneurship fellowship, with online course work, mentorship and guest speakers, to 150 freshmen at several schools nationwide .

“In business school, we learned how to take Coca-Cola international but not how to file taxes or how to bootstrap,” Shah says. “We wanted things like mentorship and entrepreneurship course work to be much more accessible.”

The Compass program targets “social entrepreneurs,” who aim to solve social problems through business, a trait many of today’s undergrad entrepreneurs have in common.

“The tech bubble in the 1990s brought a huge amount of hype about one product or service, and what a lot of fun that was for a while,” says Elaine Romanelli, a strategy professor specializing in entrepreneurship at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. “The undergraduate entrepreneurs I’m meeting now have a different entrepreneurial intention or purpose.

“They are focused on building not only a profitable business, but in building a business that’s founded in sustainability, that’s connected to the community and that may have a nonprofit or philanthropic purpose as well as an entrepreneurial one.”This concept has made business owners out of students who otherwise wouldn’t have considered entrepreneurship, such as Melissa Eddison, 22, a George Washington University senior working to open the Funkstown Food Collective on her campus.

The cafe will serve locally grown organic food. Its business model combines for-profit and nonprofit components, with an option for students and low-income patrons to volunteer at the cafe for food credits.

“This was another way I could effect change,” says Eddison, who is majoring in international economics.

Georgetown sophomore James Li, 20, founded REaction Strategy Group, a consulting company that aims to help nonprofit organizations create better relationships with donors. Li and his business partners, 11 other students, have since designed websites, social media plans and other donor-relation strategies for several nonprofit groups locally and nationally.

Li says he was convinced he was on the right track a few months ago after listening to Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru. As Georgetown undergrads, the three founded the Sweetgreen yogurt and salad chain in 2007, using local organic ingredients, compostable packaging and flatware, and solar power in some stores.

“The hunger to do something we’re passionate about, rather than going out and getting a job that pays well but doesn’t speak to a certain purpose, defines our generation,” Li says.

“Undergrads see their peers charting their own career paths and creating the kind of lifestyle they want through entrepreneurship,” says George Solomon, co-director of GW’s Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence. “It all feeds into this idea of doing their own thing.”

As interest grows, professors are teaching not only how to start a business but also how to fail gracefully. That means planning worst-case-scenario exit strategies and discussing how to treat investors with care after a business folds.

“Students have a lot of energy and passion, and have great ideas, but working against them is the fact that they don’t know what they don’t know,” Epstein says. “Understanding that, in fact, most ventures do fail is a very important part of the learning process.”

Eddison says the search for capital for her food collective has been humbling. And as her friends fine-tune their resumes and line up job interviews, Eddison is working on incorporation paperwork and a marketing plan.

“It’s thrilling to be laying the bricks as I go, but it’s also scary,” she says.

Li, like Eddison, faced risk and choices even before graduation. Last summer Li persuaded two of his business partners to forgo summer internships at major consulting firms to work on REaction full time. The three lived in Li’s parents’ Los Angeles home, camping out in coffee shops in between client meetings during the day.

They netted two new clients, including Los Angeles-based Pathways Volunteer Hospice, for whom they created a new website and a social media plan.

Pathways operations manager Vickie Kaefer says she was initially skeptical of contracting with college students, but Li and his team delivered a smart, professional pitch. Pathways is still working to implement REaction’s plan but has already received positive feedback from donors, Kaefer says.

“Board members aren’t afraid to give out our Web address anymore,” Kaefer says. “It makes us look so much more modern and professional, and that was only one of the ways (REaction) helped us.”

Still, Li says, making the leap without a promise of payoff was difficult.

“I had to convince my business partners that it wasn’t as big of a risk as you’d think it is,” says Li, who hopes to work for REaction full time after graduation in 2013. “I think there’s a strong case for the idea that you can learn more spending a summer working at your own start-up than you ever could at an internship.”