Business Course Makes Innovators of Undergrads
Release Date: 04-08-2010
Integrated Product Development class students, from left to right, Aaron Backer, David Caccavo, John Bleh, Marjorie Scarff, Albert Harnisch. (Photo: Sally McCay)
As Sarah Madey '09 learned the ropes of her new position at Maguire Associates, a research-based consulting firm in Boston focusing on higher education, she found herself drawing on concepts she learned in the School of Business Administration. One course in particular, she says, prepared her especially well for the marketing, promotions and product development aspects of her current job as director of client relationship management.
"Integrated Product Development really gave me a taste for what was to come after graduation," says Madey. "It was by far my most challenging and favorite course at UVM because it really forced you to be creative, but also self-motivated to meet deadlines. Being innovative is important in my job because it's what gives you an edge on the competition. IDP allowed me to make some mistakes and learn from them so I didn't have to make them when I started working."
The invitation-only course requires teams of four students to consult with business leaders at local companies where they present a product idea that could potentially make it to market. Most don't, but the process of brainstorming, choosing a product, designing it, and ultimately presenting it to a board has proven a valuable experience for students who have taken the course over the past 15 years. Madey says her experience developing a national marketing campaign for Orage, an innovative ski gear company, gave her needed experience prior to graduation.
This year's class is working with Hampton Direct, a leading importer and distributor of consumer products that seeks out innovative inventions like the Wonder Hanger and Twin Draft Guard, which they promote in "As Seen on TV" infomercials. Tim George G‘06, vice president and chief financial officer for Hampton Direct, says he's been "very impressed by the number of ideas the class has brought to our attention," adding that each group has come up with at least one item that has market potential.
"Hampton Direct works with a number of inventors throughout the world, and in many instances the inventor will have a great idea, but be less certain of how to successfully produce the product on a larger scale and bring it to the mass market," says George. "This is the core competency of Hampton Direct, and the Integrated Product Development class allows students to see that transformation from development of product concept to successful consumer product. This type of knowledge is very valuable for students who will go on to work in product-focused companies. To have the knowledge of how to design, manufacture, market, and sell an item -- and doing all that while making a respectable profit -- certainly gives them a leg up compared to those who may only be aware of one or two of those dimensions."
John Bleh, a junior business major with concentrations in management, the environment and human resources, is currently working with his team on producing a kitchen dispenser that would put food wraps such as aluminum foil, plastic and parchment in one storage device, making them easier to organize and better at dispensing individual sheets.
"Hampton Direct hasn't tried to cushion things," says Bleh. "They've told us what they like and also pointed out flaws in our products. They really got us thinking about potential product ideas in news ways. We started by thinking of solutions, but switched to thinking of ways to solve problems in people's lives. The course is run like a business, not class, so we've had to write a business plan and meet deadlines. I definitely think it will help when we enter the workforce."
The business-like structure of the course was designed by Larry Shirland, longtime business professor and interim dean. He co-teaches the course with Jerry Manock, a mechanical engineer and product design expert who has worked for multiple companies including Hewlett Packard and Apple Computer before founding Manock Comprehensive Design, Inc., and Peter Morris, owner of an architectural and product design consulting firm in Burlington.
"I think we complement each other by bringing different skills to the course," says Shirland. "We intentionally keep the course somewhat vague because we don't want to steer students in one direction and stifle their creativity."
Senior Emma Snyder, who was part of the 2009 winning team that created an ice cream-filled truffle for Lake Champlain Chocolates, liked the freedom of being able to create and select whatever product her team chose. "The thing I liked most about the course was that we could really take it in any direction that we wanted," she said. "For our project we were free to create anything from a piece of machinery to a product promotion plan, and the professors were very supportive of whatever anyone chose to do. By the end of the course, I was more comfortable and productive, operating with more autonomy."
Matt Greer, who also took the class in 2009, says he struggled a little with the broad discretion allowed in the course, but liked the fact that students were given the tools and freedom to create virtually anything.
"The course brought together elements from all of the different business disciplines to tackle problems that someone would face in a real-world situation," he says. "The execution of this is key and Larry, Peter, and Jerry work hard to maintain a professional environment. Having an 'employee manual' instead of a syllabus; being able to contact the 'bosses' at any time with questions; and little specific direction all create an experience that is out of the ordinary in terms of a typical class."