In this Section, Neal Hartman describes how students help design and arrange study tours and how the students are assessed.
The Design of the Course
Something very unique about the study tour courses is that the students propose the tours. Any number of proposals could come in. The proposals focus on two things: geographic location and theme. Where would you like to go? And why do you want to spend time in Japan, or Brazil, or Gambia, or wherever it might be?
Once the students put together the proposals, the MBA office and student affairs program office review them and ultimately select the ones that they think represent the best opportunities. Once those proposals have been selected, they’re advertised, and the students promote them. Both first- and second-year MBA students can apply.
To do that, they submit an essay focusing on why they would like to participate in that particular study tour trip. With the students’ names omitted, the student organizers (there are typically five of them) then read through and evaluate the proposals to select 20 first- or second-year MBA students. So each study tour usually has 25 people.
The organizers are mostly second-year MBA students, sometimes with a first-year student in the mix. The organizers do a great deal of the organization of the class content. There’s typically a fair amount of collaboration between the student organizers and the faculty member who will be working with them. The students are really good at thinking about faculty whom they know from MIT, and other places, who might offer expertise on a particular topic. And they’ll recommend someone, and often make the contact to see if that person is available.
So the students very much drive the content of the course. The faculty member helps design the syllabus and think about the deliverables, since the faculty member is often the one who’s going to be grading them.
Trip Logistics That Make for Success
The student organizers primarily are involved with the logistics. They deal with contacting the different companies that we’re trying to meet with. The class begins in early February, and they contact a lot of these places in September or October, months ahead of time, in order to make it all happen. The faculty member and the staff talk with the student organizers, who may have 50 company visits that they would like to accomplish in a matter of days. And you just sit back and say, “Uh, no, you cannot do six or seven company visits every day.”
It’s critical for the success of these trips that there’s a good balance of company visits and cultural visits. If you’re in China, you should go to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. You should see some of these things, because for most of the students who go on the trips, it’s often their very first time in that particular location.
For New Zealand this year, for example, one of the student organizers was from New Zealand, and I think one other student had been to New Zealand, when he was seven or eight years old. So it was really the first time that the majority of these folks went there.
It’s also critical that there’s some free time built into these trips. It’s usually a long journey, and there should be a little time just to relax and have fun, go shopping, or do whatever you want to do. We really work on that balance.
In advance of company visits, students choose or are assigned to write a brief about the different companies. In New Zealand we would meet every morning right after breakfast, and one student would give us a briefing on the company we were going to visit at 9 o’clock, then another student would give us the briefing on the place we were going at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
So we do a bit of research on the company. Then during the site visit, the company people typically give a presentation, and we ask questions. At the end of the day, we would generally do a debrief: What did you learn? What did you take away from this company? What was the key message you got from it?
So that, I think, is one of the ways where the study tour trips are quite different from the different Action Labs, where the students are making recommendations or doing projects with companies and organizations. We’re really learning from these companies. What was it like to start this type of company in Auckland, New Zealand? What were the obstacles? What worked well? What advice would you have for somebody who might want to come to Auckland and start up a new business?
Occasionally, somebody on the study tour trip has ended up doing an internship with one of the companies during the summer, or stayed in contact with certain companies because the student’s interest has matched really well with what the company is doing or looking for.
The Role of Guest Speakers
Guest speakers play a critical role in international study tour classes, especially when the trip has a theme. Realistically, there probably aren’t a lot of faculty here who are experts in both a particular country and that theme. So if you’re thinking about innovation in New Zealand or about water issues in Singapore and China, the guest speakers are helpful in giving some perspective on the country and the culture because they’ve worked there, lived there, or studied about it.
But the speakers also give the students background on the issues that we’re going to be looking at when we’re in that particular area. And that’s great, because I think it gives the students a real sense of perspective. It helps students frame thoughtful questions for the company or governmental representatives, or whoever it might be.
The class sessions meet for three hours on Monday evenings during the first half of the spring term. We might have a guest speaker in the first half, and another guest in the second half of the class. Or we might have just one guest speaker, and do other things in the rest of the class.
For the New Zealand study tour this year, we had a number of people that have been very actively involved in entrepreneurship and innovation going on in New Zealand. MIT has had a relationship with companies in New Zealand through the REAP program. So we were able to learn quite a lot about what some of these companies are doing, and about the culture around innovation in New Zealand.
The deliverables for the course vary depending on the scope of the tour and the faculty member. As part of the Action Learning program, Sloan requires students to attend a public informational session. Students are asked to prepare posters and to have representatives available to talk about some of the key learnings from the trip at that event, which happens at the end of the term.
The students are also asked to write blog posts during the trip, which is a great way of getting out to a variety of sources what they’re learning, what the student perspectives are, as well as the kinds of things that are happening on the study tours. Sometimes a student has done preliminary research on a company and writes a blog post to brief everybody before the visit. Then after the company presentation, a student might write a blog explaining what’s going on there, and what we’ve learned.
Sometimes students blog more about the experience of the trip itself: “I’m in Wellington, New Zealand, and this is what’s going on…” So it’s a great way of helping the students reflect a bit on things they’ve seen or done or heard, putting that into words, and sharing it.
For the New Zealand trip, about a week or so after we came back, each student submitted a reflection paper on what they really got out of the trip, and what they took away from it.