Ashley Weleschuk, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning
June 18, 2018
“[Students] don’t always realize how much they have learned until they present it to the experts at the end” – Alice de Koning
Teaching students to think like entrepreneurs can be challenging. It is not a skill that can be taught just through reading and studying. When students go out and engage with real business owners and see their work in action, they see everything in context. In the class ENTI 405: New Venture Start-Up, Dr. Alice de Koning uses an ecosystem approach to help teach students about businesses in Calgary and the impacts businesses have on their communities. One of the main objectives for the course is for students to shift from having the perspective of a consumer, to that of a business owner and entrepreneur. This shift happens due to the experiential components of the course. Students explore neighbourhoods in Calgary to learn about businesses in their environmental context. They survey business owners, shoppers, and other people they encounter in the community, learn about the history, and find areas for improvement.
Each year, Alice selects two neighbourhoods in Calgary for students to study. She picks inner-city neighbourhoods with lots of local businesses, such as Kensington, Inglewood, and Bridgeland. Students are divided into groups with mixed backgrounds and experiences for the semester. The final project for the course is to provide creative recommendations for community improvement. Some of the other assessments and exercises help develop and inform these recommendations.
Students need to develop an understanding of their assigned neighbourhoods. They need to know who visits, shops, and works there. The first assessment in the course is surveying people in the community about their values, perceptions, and favourite businesses. Students are given different days and times to do their surveying. The goal is for each pair of students to survey at least 20 people, but since they complete this assignment in January, cold weather sometimes limits this. All of the data for each neighbourhood is compiled after all the surveys are done. Students can analyze this data and use it to inform their later projects.
Alice adapted the survey from a journal article about improving main streets in small towns. Students ask why people are out in the community, what they find important in a neighbourhood, whether or not this street does a good job of meeting their needs, and what businesses they think are missing. Primary data is essential for entrepreneurs, but it can be intimidating to approach people for surveys, especially for introverted students. Working in pairs and having a pre-determined script reduces some anxiety.
Students get to meet and interview local entrepreneurs and hear their story, their business history, and their thoughts on the community. Alice contacts business owners and assigns pairs of students to interview each of them. Before the interviews, she spends a class teaching them how to ask leading questions and get the information they need. They have a few major objectives to meet, such as sharing the story of how the business started and what the owner thinks about the community. Otherwise, they are free to be creative and present their interview however they would like. This assignment is crucial because it is where most students experience the shift in thinking from consumer to entrepreneur. They see these business owners in new ways and see the neighbourhoods through the eyes of the business owners. The stories and insights show entrepreneurship in action.
Interviewing is another skill that develops over time, and Alice helps support students as they work on this skill. They are not assessed on how well they do the interview, but on how well they present their findings, which means they are able to make some mistakes. There are also asked to do a reflection on what they think could do better in the future, so they can build on their experience.
The final project is to make recommendations for improving the neighbourhood and give suggestions about what kinds of businesses would fit in it. Students are expected to use the data from the surveys and the stories from their interviews to inform their decisions and provide evidence to their projects. Ample class time is given to work on them, so students can discuss their recommendations with Alice, who can give them formative feedback and areas to expand upon. Students often present recommendations that are fairly simple, so Alice tells them they have to expand deeply on how and why those measures should be implemented. Other times, their ideas are unrealistic, so she helps them find similar, but more achievable suggestions.
Students are encouraged to be creative with the final project. They are encouraged to use their unique skills to present the project, such as creating websites, 3D models or collages. Student work is always unique and of high quality. The project’s stakes are especially high because people from the community, including entrepreneurs and business association leaders, come to see them. These people have the capacity to implement some of the improvements, so students have to present innovative but realistic measures.
The rubric for this final project is purposely vague because Alice does not want students to feel restricted by meeting many requirements. The main focus is on making at least two evidence-based recommendations to the community, with suggestions for implementation methods and good reasoning behind them. She believes that this is important for students to have a lot of freedom because it leaves room for creativity but also challenges them. Keeping objectives too strict on an experiential project means that there is a limit to how authentic and real it can be.
The course feedback is quite positive. From an instructor's perspective, it appears that students enjoy the challenge of the projects. Alice tries to support her students as much as possible to help them succeed. No two groups do the same projects, so it is always exciting to see what they create. The assessments are crucial in helping students broaden their understanding of what it means to be an entrepreneur and if they want to be in that role.
“Students may not see themselves as massive entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, but maybe they see themselves more like Luke, who runs Luke’s Drug Mart in Bridgeland. He’s an entrepreneur in his own way.” – Alice de Koning
This course developed over several years. Alice started out with a few experiential components in the course. She slowly implemented more and more, until the entire course became community-based. She has run the class in its current form for several years and has found it to be incredibly successful. She plans to keep most of her assessments the same, but she changes the neighbourhoods each year. She does not want students to be able to base their work on what previous groups did, and she does not want to exhaust the business owners they collaborate with. She also changes around the lectures slightly each year, based on student feedback and her impressions. She notes that she is planning to put a larger focus on data analysis in future, as students do not always realize how powerful a tool it can be.
All of the assessments are designed to help bridge the gap between students and business owners. They are all meant to help students make that change in their thinking. Alice believes that the experiential nature of the course is the best way to achieve that shift. She says that students need to not only see the businesses and meet the owners but reflect on the impact these people have on their communities and their city. All the assessments contribute to the overall objective of learning what it means to be an entrepreneur in Calgary.