St. Thomas has embraced the use of applied learning techniques in its MBA curriculum. Applied learning offers students an opportunity to integrate and apply the knowledge and skills gained in the classroom to a real world problem. In many cases, the work is focused on community projects enabling students to provide service to local businesses and nonprofit organizations.

This learning technique had been adopted by numerous marketing courses at the University of St. Thomas. One of the more popular classes, Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC), has not only proved to be a fulfilling course for students, but has also provided an invaluable service to small businesses in the Twin Cities area.

Offered as an elective for MBA students, IMC provides students with a broad overview of the marketing communications process. The class covers a range of topics, including advertising, public relations, sales promotions, and direct marketing. Teams of students are paired with local businesses and complete a series of application exercises that focus on specific topics covered in class. To supplement the application exercises, textbook readings and business cases are used to help students see the value of an integrated communications plan. The semester culminates in a (roughly) 75-page marketing plan and a 30-minute presentation, delivered to the client on the final evening of class.

This past term, students were paired with Community Thread, a non-profit organization that has been providing service to the Washington County area for over 40 years. Located in Stillwater, the organization offers volunteer service programs that are not only able to enrich the lives of those in the community, but also enrich lives of their volunteers.

One branch of the organization, Community Thread Senior Centers, aims to deliver comprehensive, high-quality activities that nourish the well-being of older adults in the community. Throughout the semester, it was the students’ goal to devise a marketing plan that increased Senior Center participation by 250 member visits per month.

The semester began with teams being asked to develop their marketing and communications objectives. Each team then used their own creativity to conceive multiple print, radio and digital advertisements. Students were finally instructed to reach out to other local businesses and inquire about advertising rates, press releases and other communication tactics.

Marketing professor Kim Sovell understands the importance of hands-on learning and pushing students to explore outside of the classroom.

While the classroom is a safe environment by which to learn, I do believe it is best for students to learn by experience more so than the traditional lecture, study, exam method.” says Sovell.

Applied learning projects help bridge the gap between academia and professional life. This technique expands students’ knowledge through real life experience, and ultimately equips graduates with skills for a successful transition into the business world after graduation.

Students Srini Venkatakrishnan ’15 M.B.A. and Gabriela Trejo ’15 M.B.A. found their team project to be a rewarding experience. Says Trejo, “It was the perfect combination of working with a dedicated team and a superb client.”

“More than learning material or reading a case for discussion, we actually built a real, integrated marketing plan for a client. The layers of the project enabled us to think through all aspects of the clients’ needs,” said Venkatakrishnan.

In addition to the rich experience students are exposed to through applied learning classes, the businesses that participate are the ones that benefit the most. Senior Center Director Karla Bataglia sees the value in partnering with university students, and knows how important this work can be to a small business with limited resources. “The people that know about Community Thread love us. It’s just that not many people know what we have to offer. This project gives us exposure. And its content is delivered in such a detailed, comprehensive manner,” commented Bataglia.

A growing trend is that students must be ready for work right after graduation. Says Sovell, “Most students are demanding less work while most employers are demanding more experience. Applied learning is one strong answer to this conundrum.”

Maxwell Shapiro is a student in the UST JD/MBA Program.

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About The Author

Clark Gregor has more than a decade of business marketing, communication and public relations experience, primarily in higher education, with shorter stints in corporate public relations and the federal government. At the University of St. Thomas he manages communications at the Opus College of Business and edits the university blog for graduate business programs, Opus Magnum along with other marketing efforts.

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