NEWARK, N.J., Sept. 19, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- Kevin Chan was hoping to find a class at Rutgers Business School that would allow him to tap into his burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit so when he received a notice last semester about a new course promising hands-on experience working with small companies, he signed up immediately.
"It seemed like a cool opportunity," he said.
He wasn't disappointed.
During the semester, he was part of a team of students who worked with the owner of a cabinet designing-distributing company to study whether he could successfully expand his business into a new market. Instead of regular quizzes and reading assignments, the students met with company managers, grappled with real business issues and then produced two documents that mimicked the work of professional consultants.
To find out what Rutgers Business School students are doing this semester to help New Jersey companies, contact Susan Todd, [email protected].
"I don't think any other class has grabbed my interest the same way," Chan said. "It was so intellectually stimulating.''
At Rutgers Business School, the concept of experiential, or hands-on, learning is taking on more importance as professors try to ensure that students are prepared for the work world and can distinguish themselves in an increasingly competitive job market.
The courses like the one offered to Chan are designed to be a bridge between the classroom and real life, giving most students their first opportunity to apply what they know about problem-solving, critical thinking, team work and time management skills.
"This is a value added to the learning experience," said Tendai Ndoro, who is chair of RBS's experiential program task force. "Rutgers Business School is producing better students by testing them in a real-life context."
Peter Kestenbaum, an adjunct instructor at RBS with corporate experience in marketing and business development, taught two experiential classes tailored to undergraduate students like Chan with an interest in entrepreneurship. Kestenbaum was part of the faculty in Management and Global Business.
Rutgers Business School worked with the New Jersey Small Business Development Center to find company owners with issues that would make suitable projects for the students. Then Kestenbaum placed students into small teams and assigned each to work with one of the companies.
Tanu Kajla, who studied economics and communications, said the experience of working with a real company was rewarding and the class with Kestenbaum was eye-opening and challenging.
"It opened my eyes to the expectations of the business world," she said.
The students, who said the assignment initially sounded daunting to them, made their mark impressing the business people and managers they worked with as part of the class.
"It didn't feel like I was working with a group of college students," said Jimmy Placa, vice president of operations at the Newark-based consumer goods maker Davion Inc. "They were able to come up with clear ideas that were surprising relevant to what we were trying to do."
Paula McQueen, a student in the class on the Newark Campus, was on a team assigned to find a viable inventory tracking system for Placa's company. "It's almost like an internship, but different," McQueen said. "It's a good experience for any student to have."
McQueen's team had to research different vendors that are in the business of providing companies with inventory tracking systems. They also met with Placa, visited his warehouses and joined him on conference calls with several of the vendors.
Direct Cabinet Sales, the company Kevin Chan was assigned to work with, is a family-owned business with 80 employees. With annual sales expected to reach about $30 million this year, Seth Teitelbaum, the company's vice president, was interested in taking the business to the next level. He wanted the students to help him study the feasibility of entering the New England market as a way of expanding the business and increasing sales.
The students used Skype for their initial meetings with Teitelbaum and eventually they met face-to-face with him, toured the company's main distribution center and completed research on the prospects of expanding into New England. They decided to look at other areas along the East Coast as well.
Teitelbaum said he was impressed with the intensity of the team's interest in his business and the level of information they provided to him. "I didn't know what to expect," he said. "They brought some great perspectives.''
Chan said he realized how engrossed his team was in the class when they met up for dinner one night.
"We weren't talking about the typical things," he said, "our conversation was more related to the class and how it forced us to unravel what the (cabinet) business was all about."
There were challenges in the classroom, too. Kestenbaum, who has taught at RBS for the past five years, required the student teams to generate the same documents professional consultants would prepare for a client. Week after week, he advised them on how to approach the problems they were addressing – how to ask better questions to get the information they wanted, how to look at the issues from different angles, how to approach the executives.
He also required them to make frequent presentations in class and offered them tips on improving their resumes and interviewing skills. "I was definitely a coach," Kestenbaum said.
Liz Colocho, a Newark student who already had a full-time job, agreed that Kestenbaum gave them the guidance of a scrutinizing coach who had expectations he wanted them to meet.
"When I started the class, my presentations were terrible. He gave us a lot of feedback. If he had to tell us 20 times to find better words, he would," she said.
While the course was offered for the first time as part of the entrepreneurship curriculum last spring, there were predecessors in Rutgers Business School's effort to establish experiential learning. Last year, Rutgers offered an experiential course through its accounting department.
Daniel Stubbs, a clinical assistant professor of accounting and information systems who taught the graduate-level practicum, said experiential learning helps to ease the often difficult transition students have moving from the classroom to the real world.
"It makes them bring to bear everything they've learned," Stubbs said.
Video with caption: "Rutgers Business School's Experiential Learning Program is designed to provide undergraduate business students in their junior or senior year of study the opportunity to engage in hands-on learning at small businesses in northern and central New Jersey." Video available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fWKCC4KfxL0
SOURCE Rutgers Business School