How This Business Simulation Prepared My Students for 21st-Century Careers

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How This Business Simulation Prepared My Students for 21st-Century Careers

By Tyler Gaspich     Feb 13, 2019

How This Business Simulation Prepared My Students for 21st-Century Careers
One student works one-on-one with her Rider University mentor

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

High-schooler Caitlyn sits in front of a computer on the campus of Rider University, frantically scanning various pop-ups on her screen. Business reports, market trends and price fluctuations race through her mind, as she seeks the one piece of information she needs. Her team is spending the day figuring out how to effectively sell bottled water in three German provinces—all while competing against six other groups doing the same.

Caitlyn calls out to her group’s mentor, Chloe, a college student from Rider: “Chloe! Carbonated water isn’t selling for us in the Western region, but our price is lower than everyone else’s!” Chloe calmly responds to the excited student, “Have you and your marketing manager had a conversation recently?” A quick conversation reveals the group was not advertising in that region. A change in group strategy puts them back on track. Crisis averted.

I teach at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, an all-girls Catholic high school in Villanova, Pa. Last year, Caitlyn and the rest of her class participated in a daylong simulation-slash-competition in partnership with the German business juggernaut SAP. The day’s goal? To wind up as the team that made the most revenue during a modeled 60-day business cycle, which occurred in three, 20-minute rounds of sheer madness that resembled a trading room floor.

The larger goal was to teach our students something about the jobs of today and tomorrow and the skills they might need to get there. That isn’t something that can be achieved in a day, of course. For our students, the process goes much deeper.

A New Kind of Business Plan

In the spring of 2015, my school looked into a new type of class to address a term that every school features prominently on their website: “21st-century education.” Many schools claim they instruct using 21st-century methodology, but after making numerous visits to schools in my area, I still observed a lot of traditional, PowerPoint-centered instruction in classrooms: a teacher talks, students write, the class takes an assessment and repeat. Our school recognizes that tangible, hands-on learning experiences featuring self-discovery and critical thinking is the key to effective instruction—as the school’s foundress, St. Julie Billiart, is quoted as saying: “Teach them what they need to know for life.”

We wanted to create a different course—a course that requires students to address problems creatively, develop empathy, persevere through failure and learn from it. A class that gets our girls talking to each other, working together and presenting in front of people. One that challenges girls to be leaders in fields horribly underrepresented by women, such as business and technology. In short, a true 21st-century education. That led us to the creation of a class we call “Design Thinking and Entrepreneurship.”

Students spend the first semester of the year-long Entrepreneurship course immersed in the design process, as outlined by the Stanford Design School. They identify a problem and conduct interviews and observations to gain empathy for those experiencing that problem. They analyze data to identify trends within a market, brainstorm viable solutions and prototype their ideas for feedback, all while keeping the user at the forefront. This half of the class emphasizes things like effective communication and a strong emotional intelligence, skills that rank among the top 10 traits that will be sought after by employers in 2020.

Over the past year, their ideas have ranged from self-charging computer cases to a four-pronged dry-erase marker device to help teachers easily switch between colors. They’ve designed shoes to discreetly carry EpiPens and invented a smartphone app that let you scan clothes and purchase outfits seamlessly (pun intended).

Once students have created a product, the second half of the course focuses on developing a business plan around their creation. Students ultimately present a Shark Tank-like pitch of their products to school administrators, teachers, classmates and local community members.

Panorama of the competition with Rider students in red. (Photo: Rider University)

Taking on New Roles

One facet the course highlights is practical, real-world experience. We don’t want students to simply learn the basics of business or problem-solving, but to grapple with tangible problems they would likely see in the business world. At the time of its creation, we recognized that this learning experience would be much more effective off campus, and we found a partner in the German-based business juggernaut, SAP.

For background, SAP software is one of the biggest names in the world of supply chain and information systems (IS), a field that remains one of the most sought-after majors running. Yet few people outside these industries have ever heard of it. Starting salaries for IS majors prove to be 21 percent higher than general business school graduates, and SAP remains at the forefront of this market—91 percent of Forbes Global 2,000 companies are customers of SAP, making it a leader in business software.

That’s how my students came to hawk German water in a frenzy on Rider’s campus. The competition, called ERPsim, simulates a virtual market and uses SAP software to manage a supply chain, similar to how employees around the world use it every day. But on this day, it was apparent that the stakes were higher than just hypothetical dollars—pride and bragging rights were on the line.

Each participant took on a particular role in the company throughout the simulation: either a Marketer (who adjusts prices based on how well water is selling and compares to other businesses), an Inventory Specialist (who monitors stock levels) or a Purchasing Agent (who generates and processes purchase orders).

By staying with one role, students become miniature experts in their corner of the business and must coordinate with each other to ensure the business runs smoothly. Here, ineffective communication results in mismanagement of stock, missed opportunity for greater sales and ultimately a loss of revenue; every decision and every minute literally can make or break a group.

Part of education is preparing students for what they will experience in the real world, and this is where field trip simulations and the ability to ask real questions in authentic settings is especially useful. During the simulation, each team receives mentorship from a current Rider student who studies Information Systems and has participated in the simulation in their own class.

My students peppered their team’s mentor with questions, looking to gain a better understanding of the software or test out hypotheses. The mentors, in turn, provided scaffolded questions to help guide these inquisitive students, such as “What trends are you noticing in the South market?” or “How can you test whether your prices are too low?”

Throughout the day, I watched students interacting with their mentors entirely on their own. The situation was perfectly organic, and is a true testament to the effectiveness of the simulation and the impact of the mentors. I literally could walk around the room silently and watch my students learn the intricacies of supply side business.

Even with no prior experience in supply chain or business software, students were emphatically arguing about the minutiae of one of the world’s most popular software systems. They gained ownership to their simulated business, and took the success and failure of their company quite personally. At one point, I watched one group realize they had an opportunity to make some money by moving inventory to a region where supply wasn’t quite meeting demand. “Order more carbonated water for the West, because they love some bubbly!” shouted one girl memorably.

The accessibility of the simulation, alongside the direction provided by Rider, allowed students to experience a lesson we sometimes forget: that computer skills are not limited to one’s ability to develop thousands of line of code. This nuanced major and influential business software welcomes the tech savvy and the technophobics alike. A passion for business proves the only requirement. In an all-girls school, this message takes on an entirely new level of importance.

By the end of the simulation, win or lose, these students gained a new understanding of college life and discovered an untapped, accessible and lucrative side of the business world. They saw that technology acumen can extend far beyond the pervasive rhetoric of “coding is king.” They were able to partake in the educational system that schools clamor for—engaging, real world situations that will impact their lives outside of school.

The goal of their class has always been to teach them what they’re capable in the real world. But it’s even more satisfying to watch them teach it to themselves.

 

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