How Business School Undergraduates are Using SolutionsU

NYU’s Stern School of Business

Business and its Publics” is a required class for freshman at the NYU Stern School of Business. It’s taken every spring semester by around 600 students split into 30 sections.

In Spring 2017, students in this course were offered a new tool to help them with their research papers: the Solutions Story Tracker. Robert Lyon, Clinical Assistant Professor of Management Communication and one of the 18 professors teaching this course, championed the integration of the Solutions Story Tracker into the curriculum, specifically to be used as a reference point for students’ last two major “cycle papers.” Check out the assignment here.

Cycles 2 and 3 are about researching and writing about the roles businesses can play in solving difficult social problems. Cycle 2 is about researching that problem. What’s been tried before? What hasn’t worked? What stakeholders are involved? The Cycle 3 paper then asks those students to propose some kind of initiative that a business entity could take to solve the problem. Lyon encouraged his students to use the Story Tracker to seed ideas for both.

“I realized that its an excellent way to give them a specific place to go to find the topic of their paper. If they have to find the topic from that database, that means they’re going to find societal problems that are intractable, affect multiple kinds of audiences, and are amenable to different kinds of actions. That’s like starting at the fifty-yard line.”

One of the recurring challenges with this assignment has been that freshmen start off with a generalized understanding of what business means to broader society, and business’s responsibilities to broader society. “They’re often less conversant in identifying the kinds of social problems that can be dealt with through institutional action.” They’re idealist and eager to engage, but mainly as concerned citizens, looking to understand problems and what can be done about them. “That’s the Story Tracker’s appeal from a pedagogical point of view,” says Lyon. “We want that to be a part of their entire growth of understanding business — the human element.” The narratives produced by solutions journalism — stories that connect with people and move them — draw in students who are looking for things they can relate to. “They want to be innovative and creative, and if we point them in the right direction they’re going to be really excited by seeing the kinds of creativity that’s already been tried and is out there.”

In the Story Tracker, students find stories about innovations, but they also leave with a deeper understanding of the complexity of problems. It dispels the myth many of them hold on a pedestal: that of the social entrepreneur who saves the day by inventing a brilliant — yet simple — innovation that solves a thorny societal problem. Instead, the database surfaces recurrent, widespread, complex social problems — and the uniquely-tailored, oftentimes only partial responses that are attempting to solve them. It illustrates that there’s neither one problem nor one solution.

And the resulting papers reflect this understanding. After Lyon introduced the Story Tracker in class, he left students to explore the tool on their own time. When the papers were turned in, he noticed a marked difference in what students had written. Students who had spent more time digging into a topic on the Story Tracker had a more nuanced understanding of challenges and how to deliver a response in environments beyond the immediate locality of New York City.

“It was a differentiator in the quality of the papers. Students seem to have taken it seriously and found good topics that they wouldn’t have otherwise known about or learned about as in-depth. Those papers were better papers for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that they’re finding, through SolutionsU, stories and problems that are amenable to interesting interventions.”

But Lyon’s task is not just to teach students what a great story looks like. Starting with narratives that hook students’ attention is great, but then it’s important to step back and see how these stories fit into a broader context, to “encounter the discourse that surrounds the story.”

“What is it indicative of? What are the drivers? What larger societal problems are contributing to this?” Students move on to apply the frameworks of business, asking questions such as how market forces enable solutions to proliferate, or whether economies of scale influence a particular intervention’s effectiveness. They use the frameworks of business as their primary vehicle when looking at the role society can play in addressing these problems.

In upcoming planning meetings for 2018, Lyon and his fellow faculty members will work to create uniformity across all the sessions of “Business and its Publics.” Currently there is a shared common syllabus, but faculty members take unique approaches to teaching.

Robert Lyon

As he prepares his curriculum for upcoming semesters, Lyon uses the Story Tracker himself. As someone who creates curriculum and case studies, who enjoys learning from others and learning how to teach different topics, he sees it as an equally useful tool for educators. “It’s absolutely enriching for me. Might not flow directly into something I’m producing, but it expands my own horizons of what’s being done and how some of these things are being taught. That’s gold for an educator.”

Educators can keep a step ahead of their students by exploring what the Story Tracker has to offer in a specific area. “You’re not going to encounter just one article. You’re going to encounter a constellation of articles. For a faculty member who wants to prepare, that constellation can be very helpful in establishing what are the salient frameworks that we can use, what are the commonalities, and producing ideas about the discourse around the problem.” Because when students start to dive in, “it’s like a treasure chest.” Which makes the role of the faculty member important, leading students to insights and pointing out gems here and there.

“When I think about what makes a good piece of journalism, it’s really aligned well with what makes a good case study for education: it tells the story but gives it meaning through context. You might call that the ‘sense-making’ aspect of the story. Pedagogically, for us, we want the same thing: we really want to help students figure out how to make sense of these problems.”

Are you an educator who wants your students to learn about how people around the world are working to solve society’s toughest challenges? Visit SolutionsU for collections of stories with discussion questions, assignments, syllabi and teaching modules.

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