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09-08-1999

Clarkson Business Students Fail In Order To Succeed

Many students complain that the first two years of their college education is spent in theoretical courses, the relevancy of which is often difficult to appreciate-- but not Clarkson University’s business students.

The Clarkson University School of Business has initiated an innovative first-year program for business students that requires them to create, plan, and manage an actual business their very first semester at college.  The students are not given any prior training on how to run a business and are only provided with a course manual and a professor.

“Needless to say, as in any business, the students experience both successes and failures. And it's actually the failures that pave the greater way for learning” says Dr. Larry Compeau, director of Undergraduate Business Programs.

Are the students “set-up” to fail?  “Definitely not!” says Mike Ensby, director of Clarkson's Shipley Center for Leadership and Entrepreneurial Development and one of the faculty members who teach in the program.  “We want them to succeed and in many ways they do, but starting and running a business is a complex matter and there will always be difficult challenges.  It is the experience of struggling with these challenges that allows students to better appreciate and comprehend the course material that comes later.” 

Students are expected to develop their own resources to accomplish the various tasks with support and guidance from the course professor, but the professor is not there to do it for them. In the first semester course, the students must set up and handle every aspect of the business including its organizational structure, idea generation, marketing, distribution, production, and financial management. Each team of about 20 students elects its own CEO and vice presidents of accounting/finance, information systems, human resources and marketing.

The follow-up course, taken the second semester, is designed to merge a basic understanding of theory with the students’ experiences in the first semester.  The course is also designed to help students develop leadership and interpersonal skills and to understand the theory behind their prior business successes and failures.

Through class discussions and team building exercises, students assess their leadership competencies and share their business experiences.  Students learn the causes and effects of their decision choices, strategies and leadership styles.

“It’s the ‘nitty-gritty’ course," says student Charis A. Spies of Redwood, N.Y. "The theories that are presented and class discussions help us evaluate our [previous] business experiences. This course allows us to understand why certain things did or did not work last semester.”

“It is hard to appreciate the years of research, work experience and thinking that lie behind a managerial theory when it’s presented abstractly in a sterile environment," says Compeau. "Students don’t get their hands dirty.  They don’t understand the significant consequences associated with not knowing and understanding the theory because they have not experienced the challenges of making these decisions.  This program is designed to force students to experience that theory first-hand by recognizing failures in their own efforts because the theory was not there to guide them in the decision making process.” 

A sense of community responsibility is also instilled in students.  Net profits from the business ventures are given back to the local community through service projects, further enhancing the learning experience. 

“In all my years of teaching, I have never had a student come to me and seriously question the applicability of a theory – until now," says Compeau. "This first-year experience is an attention-getter. Students now know first hand how important their studies will be to their ultimate success as managers. You just can’t get that point across in a lecture.”

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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