Steve Powell on Tuck’s First-Year Project

Professor Powell says the First-Year Project brings a new form of self-awareness.

Most Tuck alums know Professor Steve Powell as their Decision Science professor from their first year at Tuck. But current students and recent alums also know him in his capacity as faculty director of the First-Year Project (FYP) core course, a term-long, project-based course that provides students with the opportunity to apply what they learn in the first-year core to a real-world problem in a corporate, nonprofit, or entrepreneurial project. Powell redesigned and constantly refines the current FYP course to ensure that students gain practical experience in project management and tailor their learning from the project course to their individual goals.

Why have an experiential learning project as part of the core curriculum?

The MBA is a professional degree. Our students are going out into the working world full of really valuable theories and applications that we give them, but it’s all secondhand experience. Even a case study, by definition, is secondhand. And there are some really important skills that can’t be taught in the classroom. We want our students to get out of the classroom and confront the real world, but do it within a structure that is focused on learning. Students often like to think that the goal of FYP is pleasing the client, but that’s a means to an end, not the goal. I always remind myself and my team that the goal here is to educate our students. It ties back into research that says humans aren’t going to learn in a systematic, dependable way without structure.

Can you talk more about that research?

Experiential learning is a challenge. There’s some research that motivates a lot of what I do, as a “designer” of the FYP course, which shows that humans do learn from experience, but typically not very well. One problem is that we are very good at generalizing from our experience, but we often generalize erroneously. The second problem is that we don’t learn the things we need to learn dependably unless we have some assistance. That’s a lot of the motivation for how I’ve structured the course. It’s experiential learning, but it’s within a structure—we know what we want students to be able to do differently by the end of the course and we structure the course to achieve those goals.

What else was the motivation for the course structure?

One of the skills we teach in the course is project management. We’ve built a structure around the same process that every good project manager uses—precise project scoping, careful work planning, storyboarding, and so on. Those are three specific skills that are in high demand wherever work is organized around projects, including consulting companies. Another is to get students in a situation where they have to apply their tools—classroom tools, anything else they knew prior to working on the project. I also think you learn by trying something out and seeing that it fails. Once students get deeply into a project and see what really happens, they might see that something doesn’t really work the way they thought it would. And another motivation is about learning to use experts. That’s a combination of respecting expertise and knowing what expertise is—how to find it, how to use it, how to talk with experts.

It sounds like there’s some humility involved in this.

It’s a mixture of humility and self-confidence. Because you’ve got to have some self-confidence to go into an expert’s office and ask them a question but be confident that you’re not going to be blown away by the answer.

How are the projects structured?

There are five students per team, and students choose their own teams. Teams also choose their own projects, and both the team and the project are subject to our approval. We require that each team select an engagement manager, and each team works with a faculty adviser, who meets with them weekly and coaches them through the process. After the project is complete, and the presentation has been made to the client, students write a team debrief, which includes a section from each of them individually, answering a set of questions that basically asks, What did you learn from the process? Not what did you learn about marketing or statistics, but what did you learn from the project process and the teamwork interaction? We do that because the research shows that people learn better when given the opportunity to reflect. And to reflect seriously, you really have to write something.

Is there an ideal FYP client or project?

The ideal project would be one that is a real business problem that’s timely, one that the client genuinely wants the answer to and will act on. But it can’t be too big or too small. If it’s really mission-critical, or too big and vague, then it can’t be done in 10 weeks. Second, the ideal client will be available to the team—engaged, in on the phone calls. And they need to make their data available, because the students will be doing original research—surveys and analysis, structured interviews, or intense spreadsheet modeling.

You also work with an FYP team of your own, right?

I directly manage staff and a team of 10 faculty advisers for the course. Becky Rice is the director of the FYP. She takes the lead in working with potential clients to identify good projects and with students to match them to projects that serve their goals. Her experience in career development is invaluable—she really gets students to think about how to use the FYP for their own personal and career goals.

We also have support for the teams from other groups at Tuck, including development and alumni services and the Career Development office. Gregg Fairbrothers D’76 and Joachin Villarreal T’08, manager of Tuck’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, have been terrific in working closely with me on developing the e-ship component of the FYP. And I work closely with Pino Audia and Richard McNulty, from the Center for Leadership, to learn how FYP can support what they do in their work with students.

How does leadership develop out of the FYP?

A different kind of self-awareness comes out of FYP. Accepting criticism is a new thing for some people. FYP isn’t a uniform love-fest. I really want this course to confront students in the spring term. And say, OK, now we’re taking it up a notch. You’re more on your own, you have more freedom, you are going to be expected to be creative. The flip side to that is that the expectations are very, very high. But you’re here at Tuck to become excellent.