The University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business, an established leader in hands-on learning has launched the largest experiential learning course in the nation. Business 301: Business in Action is a required course for all Gies juniors and includes approximately 800 students spread across 11 smaller sections.
“Learning by doing is built into the Gies DNA, and we’re proud to be a leader in this area,” said Andrew Allen, director of the Magelli Office of Experiential Learning, which manages action learning at Gies. “Experiential learning is embedded into the design of our programs. As a result, our employers and alumni tell us that our graduates are better prepared to hit the ground running and add value from day one on the job.”
Business in Action is an experiential learning course in which students spend the semester working in teams of 6-7 to analyze and solve business problems for real clients. Students learn to effectively work as a team, develop strategies to solve complex problems, and prepare to share their stories with recruiters. Teams are coached and mentored by senior-level Gies students who take a 400-level Project Management in Action course. It’s all part of Gies’ longstanding commitment to action learning, and soon every Gies student will graduate having participated in experiential learning.
“Our goal is to create opportunities for our students to have meaningful experiences,” said Allen. “We’re able to present our students with actual business problems brought forward by clients. By doing this, we’re able to bring our classroom into the business world and prepare our students in a very powerful way.”
In addition to solving business problems, Business in Action prepares students to effectively give and respond to feedback, manage and participate within teams, and present their findings to clients. Students work on projects for Fortune 100 corporations, mid-sized and startup companies, and nonprofit organizations. Of the many students who participated in semester-long client projects over the last two years, 89% say learning by doing improved their Gies experience, and 95% say they have a better story to tell recruiters.
Experiential learning made a world of difference for Diana Graciano. The first-generation transfer student was open about her struggles navigating through job interviews. By participating in a project through BUS301, she learned about problem-solving, how to work in a team, and how to effectively tell her story.
“Some of the skills that I learned in this class helped me get a lot of interview callbacks, helped me gain a lot of experience, and helped me get two internship offers both with great companies,” said Graciano.
Annabelle Hioemawan had a similar transformative experience. She co-led a team working with a Chicago confectionery company, developing a 3-5 year pipeline of limited time offer cookies, complete with the support plan. That included brainstorming the new flavors, the right cadence of release, and the optimal sizes and price for the packaging. They also helped the company understand what the market wants and develop a marketing plan to ensure the success of the new release.
“I think that working with real companies, and having this unique opportunity to get a taste of being a consultant during our years in Gies is very valuable,” said Hioemawan. “It is also perfect that Gies offer this opportunity because of the connections that College has. Students can work with some of the best companies, some even Fortune 500 companies. The professors that we had from Gies were supportive and always ready to help, and the mentors that we had were all very experienced.”
Experiential learning has not only made a major impact on the students involved, but clients are also seeing positive results. Ascent Integrated Tech, a startup at the Research Park working with the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute, has sponsored a project in the past and is returning for another project in Fall 2021.
“The student consultants from the Action Learning team made incredible progress on our primary and secondary market research goals,” said Paul Couston, co-founder and CEO of Ascent. “The consultants interviewed firefighters from hundreds of fire departments all across the United States to better understand our market and validate our assumptions. The students were extremely diligent, responsive, and thoughtful in their approach to customer discovery, empathy interviews, and market sizing and analysis. I highly recommend this to any founders or business owners looking for energetic students to help grow their businesses.”
The new course is part of a recently revamped cohort curriculum, where each class of students takes the same course broken up into smaller sections. Freshmen take Business 101, which introduces students to professional responsibility. Business 201 for sophomores is Business Dynamics, in which students run a business simulation. Juniors participate in Business 301, and then seniors cap off their careers with Business 401: Business in a Global Perspective. This course provides an in-depth examination of contemporary global business.