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Students Face Real-World Challenges

College students challenged with problem-solving, team-building assignment.

Several of the major swine production employers in Iowa met with Iowa State University professors to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the swine-based curriculum. Their focus was primarily on two swine-oriented courses —the basic swine science course (Animal Science 225), taught by Tom Baas, and the swine systems management course (Animal Science 425), taught by Ken Stalder (at right).

Specifically, these most-likely employers of ISU graduates were asked to evaluate course work for “soft skills/real-world skills,” such as communications, leadership, personality knowledge, interpersonal skills and team- building knowledge.

ISU students and staff were given high marks for their technical skills, but their soft skills were found to be somewhat lacking.

“To address these needs, our objective was to develop the interpersonal skills students with a bachelor of science degree in animal science will need for careers, graduate and professional school, and other endeavors after graduation. We also wanted to provide a feeling of ownership and investment in the program by these potential employers,” Stalder explains.

Skills Development

The AnS 225 students were mostly sophomores and juniors, while AnS 425 students were seniors or new graduates, some beginning postgraduate course work. The basic swine science class had 125 students, while the swine system management course had 50 students.

In a laboratory setting, Murphy-Brown’s western operations employee development staff, based in Ames, IA, taught AnS 425 students the value of personality assessments and different leadership styles. AnS 225 students received leadership-style training only.

“It was amazing to watch the Murphy-Brown people work through the process with students. It was evident that students had thought about these things, but they didn’t know much about personality assessments or how they might use them in the future,” Stalder says. 

Students were given an opportunity to apply this newfound knowledge in a teamwork leadership activity assignment designed to help them work more effectively in a small team, where personalities and leadership styles differ. 

Each AnS 425 student, serving as a team leader, was randomly assigned two or three AnS 225 students. Their assignment was to develop a PowerPoint presentation that addressed a critical issue facing the U.S. pork industry, such as:

  • Sow pen gestation challenges
  • Response to an undercover video
  • Concern for potential grain shortage
  • Response to a potential moratorium on new construction of swine production facilities
  • Response to a concerned customer about company production practices
  • Generational challenges facing the pork industry
  • Dealing with tight budgets
  • Implementation of immunological castration
  • Alternative topics submitted by students

“Our goal was to increase awareness of the importance of interpersonal communication skills and leadership development. We wanted to provide a framework that would allow students to work together and respond to an issue critical to the pork industry,” explains Baas (at right). “The direction given to students was intentionally minimal, because we wanted to see how students would respond as a team.”

The team activity was worth about 10% of their course work grade. “We wanted to make it enough so they would take the assignment seriously, yet not be a disproportionate focus for the time and effort required,” he adds.

Teams were scheduled for a 30-minute session with Stalder and Baas where they addressed the critical issue and provided their recommendations.

Student Evaluation

Each student was asked to complete an evaluation form with five questions, using scores from “1” (no benefit) to “10” (great benefit). Most of the students completed the evaluation.

The questions were: 

Q1:How beneficial was the instruction by human resources staff in the success of this assignment? Nearly half of AnS 225 students rated it 8 or higher, while only 10% rated it less than 5. The AnS 425 students ranked the lab as effective in helping them understand themselves and in terms of working on the project, Baas notes.

Q2: How did the assignment help you understand your leadership skills? AnS 425 students indicated they better understood their leadership skills with a rating of 8 or higher, while about half of the AnS 225 students rated it 8 or higher. “Fifteen students rated it under 5, which may reflect that they didn’t want to be a leader,” Baas points out. 

Q3:How did the project help you understand the process of working as a team?This was a primary goal of the project. More than half of the AnS 225 students gave a rating of 8 or higher. “They recognized that this activity helped them understand how to work together as a team,” he explains.

Q4:Rate how this project might benefit you with other courses at ISU. The AnS 225 students’ average rating was 7.54. AnS 425 ratings were a little lower, possibly because they were nearing graduation, Baas says.

Q5: Did the project benefit you in terms of your future career? “Over half the students in both classes indicated that the project was beneficial, with a score of 8 or higher. “We took that as a very positive response, and an indication that we had succeeded in developing a project that students saw some value in terms of their careers,” Baas notes. Fourteen of 113 AnS 225 students gave a rating of 10.

When asked if the course should be continued, 74% of AnS 225 and 70% of AnS 425 students said “yes.” Generally, AnS 425 students liked the responsibility, and AnS 225 students liked the idea of adesignated leader, Baas notes.

What Was Learned 

Much like in the real world, the most common challenge students cited was finding the time to meet as a group, the ISU instructors explain.

Some students wanted to work with their friends. “We reminded them that they wouldn’t always have a choice in who they would work with,” Baas says.

Additional key points included:

  • Everyone must participate. In some cases, the group leader did not step up. “That frustrated some of the AnS 225 students, because they were gung-ho to get the project done and they were willing to serve as a group leader,” Baas says.
  • Teamwork is not always easy and not all team members will contribute equally.
  • Assignments must be specific to avoid confusion.
  • Students need to be open to new ideas. 
  • Some are leaders; some are followers.
  • People’s strengths tend to surface to complete the project.

Baas had taught most of the AnS 425 students previously, and he saw some changes in their personalities and leadership styles. “Some former students surprised me in how they stepped up when given a leadership role. It was an indication of them maturing and taking on responsibility. It was fun to see,” he adds.    

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