Television-inspired course introduces non-Whitman majors to business basics

Professors act out drama surrounding a fictional chocolate company to engage students in Whitman's new "Business Essentials" course.

Susan Smith never teaches her newest class with lectures or PowerPoint slides.  When she enters her lecture hall of 105 students, she becomes the marketing executive of the fictional company MJ Whitman Chocolates.

The class, BUA 100: Business Essentials, is a two-course sequence specifically for students who do not major in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management. There are no prerequisites for the class, which is taught as if it were an interactive television drama.

“We all believe that telling a story is the best way to teach,” said Smith, who teaches the marketing portion of the class and acts as the marketing executive of MJ Whitman Chocolates. “We are planning on keeping the class going as a new episode for two semesters.” 

Smith is one of seven Whitman professors who co-teach the new course. Each professor represents a different major within the school, including management, accounting and supply chain management. The class is held on Mondays and Wednesdays from 12:45-2:05 p.m. in Whitman’s Lender Auditorium.

Although the class does not have props or sets, the professors keep the story alive by portraying characters in MJ Whitman’s fictional management team and acting out the everyday dramas that can occur in real businesses. In one “episode,” for example, the price of cocoa beans decreases five percent.

All the professors worked together to create scripts and a plot that follows MJ Whitman Chocolates after the unexpected death of the company’s CEO. The professors have monologues with the student audience as a way of expanding on topics and encouraging engagement. The students, in turn, use ResponseWare remotes to respond to questions.

Smith, who specializes in innovative businesses strategies, led the planning of the course last spring. She said the Netflix series "House of Cards," in which a Washington politician describes political corruption directly to viewers, helped inspire the course structure.

Each class ends with a cliff-hanger to keep students coming back for more, she added.

The class began with 80 students, but the number had grown to 105 by the time the registration period ended, Smith said, attributing the increase to word-of-mouth recommendations.

Roxanne Silver, a junior in the Bandier Program of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, encouraged many of her friends to join the class after she found it much more engaging than her other courses.  

“I think every class should have this format,” Silver said.

Although business schools are divided into specialties or majors, Smith emphasized that actual businesses are not. She, and the other professors in the class, hope Business Essentials shows how all of the different parts of a business must work together.

Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Programs Amanda Nicholson said the course developed in response to the number of non-Whitman students who get blocked out of business classes each semester because they filled so quickly with Whitman students. The sequence is specifically structured to give non-Whitman students a taste of all the important elements of a business and how they interact.

The choice of a chocolate company was not a hard one, Nicholson said. “We decided on chocolate because it's something most people can relate to,” she said.

The Hershey Co. had also already partnered with Whitman, so Hershey representatives gave the Business Essentials professors advice on how to structure MJ Whitman Chocolates as realistically as possible. Hershey’s CEO even offered some advice, Nicholson said.

“We had some really good data to work with,” she said.                    

While students are just learning the basics of the fictional company now, next semester they’ll break into teams and consider more significant questions regarding its future.

Economics sophomore Talya Sever said she plans to continue with the course because she loves the passion and energy the professors bring to every class.

She added she does not think the class alone provides enough information to launch a business or become employed, but it does give a lot of useful information about how businesses run.

“This class is just the first step,” Sever said. “If I ever create my own company in the future, like my father did, this class will just make it much easier.” 

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