Competition Challenges Business Students to Rethink Course in Sustainable Terms

A team from MacEwan University, School of Business in Canada recently took second place in the PRME Leaders +20 Challenge, organized by Aarhus University. For this contest, students and lecturers in the field of management education teamed up to integrate sustainability perspectives into new or existing course descriptions.

The second place team was made up of Dr. Leo Wong, Caitlin Farrell, Rory Kirkpatrick, Cam McCoy, William Pasieka and Dan Scott, all bachelor of commerce students. Their entry involved revising the core Introduction to Business course – a requirement for over 600 students a year – based on the premise that responsible leadership and effective management require multiple perspectives: an understanding of business and its substantive disciplines, as well as emerging issues in the world of sustainable business. I recently had the chance to speak to Dr. Leo Wong about their winning entry.

1. Why change the core Introduction to Business course?

The BUSN 201 course has been around for a while, but its current delivery does not include sustainability content. In fact, we have struggled to get students engaged in the course as it is a general introductory course to all things business. This contest presented the opportunity to re-imagine what a course like this could look like if we integrated sustainability and changed the approach to be about inspiring and fostering responsible leaders.

The main advantage is that you introduce the topic early on, when students are starting to learn other business concepts. This helps them integrate a framework of sustainability into other concepts at the same time, instead of as an after-thought. You also expose all students to the topic, not just those who have self-selected into an elective. Some students, who may never have thought about sustainability or cared about it, now have an opportunity to assess whether it applies to their own careers and personal lives.

2. What are some of the changes that you are proposing?

We want to make the course much more student-driven. The students will be engaged in discussions about pertinent sustainability topics throughout the course, with a bit less emphasis on ‘lecturing’ material from a textbook (which was how the course ran previously). We also want to introduce a community service campaign, where all the students have the opportunity to apply basic business concepts by organizing themselves around innovative ideas to address community needs. Lastly, we want to bring in more local speakers who have first-hand experience with integrating sustainability into their businesses, and possibly even focusing on a few of them as live case studies, for the students to really get familiar with.

3. How did you go about putting together the proposal and how was it received?

I was able to recruit some students in one of my classes, Introduction to Nonprofit Management, as well as students from a group on campus called Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE) to join the team for this competition. Fortunately, those students also had a nice complement of skills – such as in video and audio production and connections to resources like a local composer who created original music – that made our entry to the competition higher quality. The students also ranged from 1st to 4th year students, so their perspectives were duly represented throughout the proposal. It truly became a passion for the students to submit something that we felt could win the competition and inspire people within and outside our school.

Engaging them was easy… they were so motivated to begin with. All I needed to do was create the space and opportunity for them to come together, and provide the necessary resources so they wouldn’t get slowed down. After putting the video together, we received a lot of online support for our proposal. Students who saw the video were often moved and inspired and looked forward to what this course would look like. Other staff and faculty were also very supportive of our work and, though some were a bit worried about the scale of the changes we proposed, I think the concern was from a well-intentioned place. It is an ambitious task, but everyone who has seen our video and heard about our proposal, has been very supportive in wanting to see these changes happen.

4. What are the challenges that you are encountering in making this happen and how are you dealing with them?

The main challenge is trying to strike the right balance between content and outcomes. We want to provide enough content for students to develop a basic understanding of introductory business concepts, but enough space for them to follow a path of self-discovery about sustainability issues. We do not plan to preach sustainability, but rather present it as a business option and let the students decide how it relates to their career path. We hope that as an outcome, they will take ownership over their time in this course and take advantage of the opportunity to become more engaged. As a result, their learning and practical application of concepts will increase.

We also need to coordinate the changes we make to this course and how it flows into other courses. Being the initial core course students take, they start with little background knowledge of business, but leave it to go into other courses. So we need to ensure the content they learn in this course transitions well into other courses, particularly how we address sustainability issues. These changes may eventually lead to a cascade of changes in other courses, which is something that should be discussed sooner, rather than later.

The other challenges relate to patience. I would love to make all the changes to the course right away, but some changes will take more time than others. For example, we want to reschedule how the various sections of the course are offered so we can accommodate high profile speakers coming in to address all the students.

5. So what’s next and what advice do you have for other schools thinking of doing a similar change?

Changing a course as dramatically as we are proposing will take a few years. We intend to make the easier changes regarding course content this coming school year. These focus on adding sustainability content (lecture materials, exercises, guest speakers) and encouraging our instructors to focus on facilitating discussion and exploration of issues over direct lecturing. We will then work on other structural changes to the course, which include scheduling and organizing students in classrooms to maximize their ability to learn collaboratively. Also, we are trying to integrate the course with senior students and student groups in order to provide mentoring and extra-curricular opportunities that will enhance what they learn in the classroom.

I would encourage schools to start that discussion now about how to do it. It is a much more difficult challenge to carry out than I thought originally, particularly since it involves other courses  and how they might potentially embed sustainability content. To be honest, we have not had that discussion from a strategic point of view. We are experimenting a little here. Having students involved in this process was vital to giving the proposal credibility. I can go and share these plans with other instructors and say that students were behind this and this is how they felt the course should be designed. That goes a long way to making these changes adoptable.

To see the full entry visit Introduction to Sustainable Business.


2 thoughts on “Competition Challenges Business Students to Rethink Course in Sustainable Terms

  1. Unfortunately, I am required to take BUSN 201 and currently am taking it. The class basically is repeating everything learned in other classes. The textbook is absolutely horrid and does not actually encourage open minded discussion. If it was not for my awesome BUSN 201 teacher this course would be absolutely horrible. I do think the class project to obtain donations to the student food bank if a GREAT idea but there was absolutely NO discussion about the causes of the fact that there are so many students living in poverty. Treating the symptom is necessary, but where is the discussion to the true cause of students living in poverty. Also when we came up with ideas for our classroom project, SIFE was extremely slow to respond basically making our class have to plan everything about our food collection at the last minute making it extremely difficult to do a decent job collecting food for the student food bank. I should also mention that there is not much about sustainability in this class, except by an afterthought by the teacher.

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