University of the Fraser Valley in Canada, recently submitted their first Sharing Information on Progress Report. As a new Signatory, the University of the Fraser Valley has spent the past few years exploring how to embed the Six Principles of PRME into their curriculum and activities. They have been conducting regular faculty workshops to discuss opportunities to integrate PRME into curricular and extra curricular activities.
A common way of integrating the Principles is by creating new courses on the topic but the School of Business at the University of the Fraser Valley took a different approach. Associate Professor David Dobson has been exploring these issues for several years now and has integrated sustainability topics into his existing course Business Research Methods which is mandatory for all students.
I spoke with Frank Ulbrich, the Director of the UFV School of Business, and Associate Professor David Dobson who leads the student research project about this initiative.
Introduce your student research projects and the place they hold in the curriculum.
Within our program we have a mandatory Business Research Methods class where students complete a major research project to learn the process, methodology, and applicability of various business research problems. This class is placed in the program to ensure that our students have the skills to conduct thorough and critically developed research in their upper level classes and future careers. It was felt that this would be the perfect platform to introduce various topics of social and corporate responsibility for the students to research. Depending on the professor, research topics vary widely from year to year, but the majority of instructors instigate the study of PRME related topics.
Why was the topic of ‘Fair Trade Coffee’ chosen as one of the topics?
I had heard a lot of people talk about Fairtrade and organic foods within the Fraser Valley. And I thought since Fairtrade was actually an organization it would be interesting to have the students find out more about them, their cause and how customers react to their label. Additionally, I was unaware of any systemic research done on this specific topic and since it wouldn’t be a very complicated research topic for undergraduates to deal with, it aligned perfectly with my course.
What were some of the questions that students explored?
Within this particular semester all the students had the same basic research question, which was to find out what customers’ willingness to pay for Fairtrade Coffee was. However, within the separate teams, the groups developed additional research questions around this topic. Some of the questions that came out were: What are the barriers to purchasing Fairtrade? What are the perceptions existing among society about Fairtrade? And how should the companies selling ‘Coffee’ market Fairtrade coffee? As an instructor I am always pleasantly surprised at the diverse angles and lenses different student groups tackle a similar project with. I am constantly learning from my own students, which I love.
How did the students react to this project? What were some of the lessons? Impact?
Most students were unacquainted with the Fairtrade movement and to be honest probably thought studying coffee for a semester wasn’t going to be very interesting. I usually find that the social and corporate responsibility topics I choose, are initially received with chagrin. But as the weeks progress, combined with the nature of the course it ends up creating a lot of awareness and interest among the students. I would say that the take away impact varies among the classes. At a minimum they are now aware of Fairtrade, some will now choose a product with a Fairtrade label over one without if they are similar in price point, and at the other end of the scale there are those students who really become impassioned for the topic.
What have been some of the challenges?
The biggest challenge in choosing a social or corporate responsibility topic to ask students to research, is taking into account the limited time frame, and sample sizes and populations. You need to remember that they are undergraduates being exposed to the research process for the first time, and that the class is really in place for them to learn about how to conduct research and not necessarily what are the results of their research. So you need to be able to give them an interesting topic that can be studied in around three months or less and take into account that because of this time based restriction, their sample sizes and diversity might be low. Additionally, this is a huge learning curve for the students. Not only is the topic of study a foreign subject, but the research process itself is all new to them.
I think the success of combining these types of topics into a research class, is that you are not only teaching them skills, but creating positive awareness. If you pick the right kind of topics, ones that are interesting and prevalent, the combination usually creates a buzz. It’s something that the student can take away and remember not just how to conduct solid research, but how to be a better-rounded and informed citizen.
Are other sustainability related topics explored in student projects?
I usually choose new research topics every time I teach the class, which keeps the marking interesting for me. Over the years my classes have studied topics from researching companies marketing practices for various products, to plastic dumping in the sea, and willingness to pay for and perception of various products like Fairtrade coffee, or Organic foods.
What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?
Choosing research topics based on sustainability or social and corporate responsibility appears to be this big challenge for professors. But it is actually very easy to find interesting and contemporary topics that students can get on the bandwagon with. After you experience the first semester running a class with these topics, you will find that students are very receptive to do something different. Plus they will surprise you with the topics they come back with and trust me you will always be learning from them. I know that a lot of my colleagues are also including social and corporate responsibility into their classes, which is great as students are constantly engaging in positive material.
What’s next for the initiative?
Since this is an area of interest for me the foreseeable future is filled with my Business Research Methods classes being framed around these types of topics. I find it is easier for the students to relate to and conduct research that is somehow based on consumer behaviour and/or consumable goods. While I haven’t fully decided what my research questions will be for next year, I am leaning towards environmental framing for environmental products, or source credibility for these types of products.
What else is happening in this space at University of the Fraser Valley?
April 4, 2017 marked the 5th Annual School of Business Student Research Day. Students present their research to a panel of judges and field questions on academic rigor and research design. Topics are usually sparked from subjects taught in various classes that feature sustainability and or corporate responsibility. Presentations this year included titles such as, “Effects of Valence Framing on Eco-Friendly Seafood Purchase Decisions.”; “Green Trends Among Fortune 500 Companies”; and “Gender at University: Analysis of Gender Equality in Public Universities Across Canada”. We are proud to provide platforms and opportunities for our students to pursue their research interests further in their undergraduate degree. It is extremely gratifying to observe our students taking interest in topics that are related to social and corporate responsibility.
We also have a number of faculty workshops organized by the School of Business to discuss opportunities to integrate the PRME Initiative. This is a new initiative for us. As committed participants of PRME we are continually looking for ways to improve the learning environment for our students. These faculty workshops are wonderful collaborative spaces where as a department we can learn about new initiatives, and also take the time to cross reference with one another about what we have been finding successful in our classrooms. Faculty learning is just as much of a necessity as student learning. When we have informed and passionate professors, we create that knowledge and awareness on PRME related topics, which results in sparking initiatives within our student body.
For more about the University of the Fraser Valley read their latest Sharing Information on Progress Report.