As business professors, we strive to teach our students about global supply chains, the impact of business on society, and the far-reaching consequences of any decision. But we sometimes forget that we can teach these lessons by using the natural resources that are very close to home. I believe all business professors can use local assets—whether they’re farms, oceans, or community gardens—to transform our students’ learning experiences from hypothetical to hands-on. But to do so, we must seize every opportunity to take students out of the classroom and into the community so they can see business concepts in action.
My school, Winona State University in Minnesota, is located near the upper Mississippi River, which serves as an integral part of our school’s recreation, research, and educational activity. Science majors study the habitat around the river, photography students camp on the shore to learn how light impacts their images, and theater majors stage community productions at the levee. But until recently, faculty from WSU’s College of Business didn’t have an easy way to use the river to teach typical business concepts.
Then in June 2014, the university christened the Cal Fremling Interpretive Center and Floating Classroom, a high-tech marine vessel dedicated to creating a greater understanding of the multifaceted nature of the Mississippi River. Named for the late Calvin Fremling, a river enthusiast and Winona State professor emeritus of biology, the boat houses an air-conditioned smart classroom and lab with Wi-Fi and live video streaming capabilities, as well as two restrooms, a small galley, and a main deck accessible to those with disabilities.
Last fall, I took students who were enrolled in my Introduction to Business course on a two-hour educational cruise on the Cal Fremling down the Mississippi River. During that session, our discussion focused on the integration of sustainability and the natural environment in a business context. In this unique venue, I was able to go beyond a standard lecture to infuse my class with native flair, bring in local perspectives, and show students the interconnection between business and our natural resources.
CONNECTION WITH COMMUNITY
Before our class cruise, I invited several local business owners and government officials to explain the impact of their business operations on the river. Not surprisingly, few wanted to offer details on how much waste their operations dump into the river or how much revenue their businesses earn via river commerce. However, many of them shared facts about their water consumption, usage, and disposal. City employees also provided information about local commodity trading, treatment of waste products, and barge traffic on the river. I invited everyone who provided information for the lecture to join us on the cruise.
For the cruise itself, I made sure to include students, community leaders, and business professionals at each table in order to encourage casual, low-pressure dialogue. For instance, during the class, a local vice president was engaged in a lively conversation with one of my students who is usually very reserved. When the executive noticed me, he exclaimed, “I want this kid to work for me! He’s fantastic!” The student beamed and took the VP’s business card.
Business schools often hold job fairs, mock interviews, and meet-and-greet cocktail hours where students can meet potential employers, but in those situations students often feel high pressure to perform. I learned during this cruise that students can make high-quality connections in more informal settings, where they can exchange dialogue and ideas with community leaders.
I also realized that there is only so much I can teach in a classroom before I overload students with too much business theory. For instance, I can tell students that the cargo capacity of one barge is equal to that of 58 semi trucks; or I can relay how using barges instead of semis to transport commodities can reduce road wear, traffic congestion, and vehicle accidents. But it was only when students cruised past a towboat pushing six barges under a bridge, while trucks rumbled noisily overhead, that these facts “clicked.” In that moment, pure theory was transformed into a living statistic.
Similarly, our classroom cruise became a way for students to see how business can impact our water resources in real-world terms. Fresh water is abundant in the upper Midwest, but our communities often question business practices regarding water reclamation or discharge. Drainage from residences, agriculture, and industry can have a significant impact on the health of the river and the supply of uncontaminated water.
I CAN TELL STUDENTS THAT THE CARGO CAPACITY OF ONE BARGE IS EQUAL TO THAT OF 58 SEMI TRUCKS. BUT IT WAS ONLY WHEN STUDENTS CRUISED PAST A TOWBOAT PUSHING SIX BARGES UNDER A BRIDGE, WHILE TRUCKS RUMBLED NOISILY OVERHEAD, THAT THESE FACTS "CLICKED."
In the traditional classroom, if I were to ask my students, “Is it illegal to discharge waste into the river?” their gut reaction would be, “Yes, of course!” But while on the cruise, they spoke to executives from two companies that rely heavily on water: One uses it to “quench” metal in the manufacture of industrial chain, and the other uses it to cool engineered plastics. These executives explained how the water is reclaimed, filtered, and properly disposed of into the river, void of harmful chemicals. Not only did students find it interesting to learn about sustainable business practices, but so did the other business practitioners who accompanied us on the cruise.
THE WORLD AS CLASSROOM
That trip down the Mississippi helped convince me that, as business professors, we must expand our vision of what our classrooms and assignments could look like. Since the cruise, my Introduction to Business course has evolved into a new offering called Business & Society, which focuses on issues of ethics and social responsibility. I’ve become bolder in my choice of learning environments, and I bring my students out of the classroom more often. And I now require students to research local industries or competitive issues and then present their findings to a local retailer on site.
The cruise also has inspired me to be more flexible with my assignments. Does a student want to do a photographic essay depicting changes in flow patterns of a local tributary since the flood of 1974? If he accompanies it with a research paper on the stream’s impact on local farmers and ranchers, he will have an excellent sustainable business research project. Does a student want to delve into coffee consumption? I’ll ask her to partner with a local roaster, track the overall cost of a cup of coffee, research global coffee consumption and sales figures for organic beans, and highlight information about sustainable business practices.
I understand that not all business professors can take advantage of a floating classroom at their universities. But they can explore their own communities to find the local equivalent, so that they can use the world as their classrooms. Those who do can dramatically enrich their students’ learning experiences by blending theory and research, dialogue and networking, experiential learning and time with community leaders. We can offer students opportunities to be more inquisitive, creative, and innovative as they learn.
Jana Craft is an assistant professor of business administration at Winona State University’s College of Business in Minnesota.