News at Smith

Students Learn by Talking to Strangers

Oct 04, 2018
Experiential / Reality-based Learning

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No Teacher, No Tour Bus and No Comfort Zone for Teams on Self-Guided Field Trips

Undergraduate students in the College Park Scholars program learned from some unlikely sources when they hit the streets of Washington, D.C., as part of an innovation course at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Squirrels, for example, taught lessons about corporate culture and consumer psychology when they approached humans looking for food. "It shows how individuals are shaped by the environment around them," says computer science major Michael Shaffer. "Squirrels in the forest run away from people, but in D.C. they come right up to you."

Gaining insight from another species is just one requirement of the Urban Team Challenge, an experiential learning activity in a freshman course called "How Do Innovators Think." Participants must also visit six designated sites, talk with strangers at each stop, and document the adventure with photos, videos and blogs.

Chaperones normally follow students on field trips, but Maryland Smith professor Mark Wellman stayed on campus. He provided no tour bus, no itinerary and no map. Computer engineering major Derek Yu says the format forced students to think for themselves. "This is something I have never experienced on a field trip before," he says. "In the past it's always the teacher saying, 'This bus, this train at this time.'"

Friends: Members of the DC Adventure Squad include Sofia Riotto, Julia DiBenedetto, Emily Cheung, Anthony Qu and Advait Ishwar.

The idea for the assignment came from The Necessity of Strangers, a book by Alan Gregerman, president and chief innovation officer at Venture Works in Silver Spring, Md. Gregerman visited the classroom on Sept. 12, 2018, and explained the rationale before students were randomly assigned to groups of five to eight. He returned on Sept. 28 and Oct. 1 to hear team presentations.

"Keep your eyes open for remarkable people, places, things, ideas, insights and possibilities throughout your explorations," he told the students. "The journey itself is just as important as the destinations."

Shaffer, Yu and other teammates kept their eyes open and met a remarkable person named The Pie Man of DC. Besides selling his bean pies to local vendors, he greeted pedestrians walking past his curbside canopy with a cheerful slogan: "Don't be shy, taste this pie."

Engineering and business management major Arthur Nissen says the Pie Man taught a lesson in customer service. "He cares about his product," Nissen says. "But he cares more about getting people to come over and smile."

Besides prompting discovery, the self-guided field trips helped students in the Business, Society and the Economy College Park Scholars program to meet each other and bond. College Park Scholars provides intellectual challenges for freshmen and sophomores in close-knit communities. Students accepted to any of the 12 programs live in shared dorms and study together on campus.

Wellman directs the Business, Society and the Economy program and leads the innovation course, the first of several required classes during the two-year program.

Team websites: Adventures of Patrick, Warren, Steve, Jay, Rockstar and Mom | BSE4Ever | BSE 2018 | BSE to DC 2018 | BSE Trip 2018 | DC Adventure Squad | D.C. Crew | DC Outsiders | DC Trip | Necessity of Strangers | Our Innovative Adventure | Sights of the Capital | Unlocking Innovation

About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.