Challenging Students to Improve the World

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Monday, April 26, 2021
By Sara B. Moeller
Photo by: iStock/LeoPatrizi
The University of Pittsburgh launches a hackathon-style event that encourages students to design solutions to homelessness and other social problems.

The coronavirus has caused many business schools to reassess their priorities and come up with new ways to deliver key student experiences. At the University of Pittsburgh Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, the pandemic forced us to rethink our approach to one of the pillars of our graduate programs—learning by doing.

As the same time, the pandemic reminded us how important it is that we diligently train our students to manage during times of change and uncertainty. It showed us that our students are anxious to make an impact outside of the classroom. And it underscored the importance of our school’s mission to prepare students to be catalysts for change. Therefore, as the crisis continued, we chose to prioritize our approach to integrated learning and embrace our purpose of preparing leaders who impact humanity.

Integrated learning allows students to take knowledge from the classroom and connect it to situations in the real world. It reinforces, deepens, and internalizes academic knowledge by enabling students to apply their business and analytical skills in meaningful situations. It requires them to distill complex topics into actionable plans while effectively communicating with multiple stakeholders who have differing opinions, approaches, and values. In other words, integrated learning encourages students to use their knowledge to lead.

To create integrated learning opportunities for students in the wake of the pandemic, we launched the first Pitt Business Super Analytics Challenge. For the 2020–21 academic year, we focused on the issue of homelessness in the Pittsburgh community.

Approaching the Challenge

Many factors contribute to homelessness, including the prevailing economic conditions, the lack of affordable housing, the inequities of the judicial system, and the physical and mental health of individuals. Much is known about homelessness because published research on the topic is widely available. Through the Super Analytics Challenge, we believed our students could take this information and devise meaningful proposals for targeted mitigation efforts.

Working alongside the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS), our school developed the Super Analytics Challenge as a one-week hackathon-style competition. We invited graduate students from across the university to team up to frame problems, create data methodologies, and generate operable solutions.

We organized an advisory committee consisting of representatives from corporate partners at insurance firm Highmark, healthcare provider UPMC, Accenture, SAP, the National Association of Counties, and the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Executives from these organizations not only helped shape the challenge, but served as coaches, analytical methods experts, and subject matter specialists. They shared their experience and knowledge with the graduate students, and they also provided guidance on the proposed solutions.

The pandemic showed us that our students are anxious to make an impact outside of the classroom. And it underscored the importance of our mission to prepare students to be catalysts for change.

Prior to the challenge, student teams were required to participate in professional development sessions with DHS, where they were briefed on specific details of the homeless population in Allegheny County. Students also worked with executive coaches and subject matter experts to learn best practices in key areas ranging from consulting to statistical analysis.

Delivering Solutions

The Super Analytics Challenge had a three-phase deliverable. First, students identified a High Impact Question (HIQ) that, if answered, could have a near-term impact on improving the homeless condition in Allegheny County. Second, students created their own data models that showed the benefits of addressing the problems articulated in their HIQs.

Finally, because storytelling is a critical way of gaining organizational and community support, students created PowerPoint or multimedia presentations outlining their proposed solutions. These presentations were shown to senior executive judges who determined which recommendations would be implemented first. Teams were judged not only on the depth of their analytical thinking, but also on the pragmatism of their proposed solutions.

More than 40 graduate students applied to participate in the challenge, including students from the Katz Graduate School of Business, the Swanson School of Engineering, and the School of Computing and Information. Approximately 25 students were selected to participate on five teams. At the end of the competition, these teams presented a range of solutions that included providing homeless individuals with academic resources, improving access to sustainable housing, increasing efficiency of rapid rehousing processes, and optimizing existing resources through a predictive algorithm. To broaden the value of the teams’ work, all solutions will be published in an online Impact Report.

The winning team consisted of MBA student Carloz Gil and Master of Science students Rebecca Farabaugh, Xingyu Li, and Tianyang Xie. The teammates identified four problem areas: access to basic-need items such as laundry and refrigeration; access to transportation and proximity to support; communication barriers such as no phones or permanent addresses; and identification barriers. The team’s solution focused on delivering services in high-need areas through pop-up centers. The students also proposed tracking access to basic needs so that Allegheny County can support, predict, and improve rates of transition to stable housing.

Members of the winning team will have the opportunity to work with Allegheny County as fellows in the Katz Bridge Program to begin implementing their recommendations. Participation in these fellowships will extend the benefits of this integrated learning opportunity, as it will allow the students to work side by side with the county to ensure that data-backed solutions can tangibly impact the people in the region who are experiencing homelessness.

Developing Catalysts for Change

Not only did the Super Analytics Challenge generate innovative solutions to an urgent social issue, but it also helped students make connections across disciplines and deepened their understanding of business concepts. In addition, it brought together a variety of contributors from sectors that ranged from business to government to academia. The diversity of participants encouraged students to value multiple perspectives—a key outcome of integrated learning.

Moving forward, our goal is for the Super Analytics Challenge to become a signature annual event. Each year, Pitt Business will identify a new community partner and tailor the challenge to that partner’s needs. Our goal is to enable our graduate students to consistently use their analytics education as they serve as catalysts for change.

People who care deeply about their work are more inclined to propose innovative, impactful solutions. If students can see that their efforts will create tangible benefits, they will be more likely to participate.

For any institutions interested in creating a similar experience, we can pass along three key pieces of advice:

Build a strong network. The Super Analytics Challenge drew on resources provided by the University of Pittsburgh, our alumni network, our corporate partners, and our partners within Pittsburgh’s nonprofit sector. Students also worked closely with Allegheny County DHS, and some teams chose to connect directly with people who have experienced homelessness. The insights from subject matter experts, executive coaches, and members of the homeless population provided enhanced insights into the nuances of homelessness.

Encourage a wide variety of students to participate. Social issues benefit from diversity of thought, so it’s essential to invite to the table people who might not already be included in the conversation. Because we invited graduate students from across Pitt to participate, students from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests submitted applications.

Choose a topic that students can be passionate about. It’s clear that people who care deeply about their work are more inclined to propose innovative, impactful solutions. If students can see that their efforts will create tangible benefits, and if they believe their work will ensure that a critical social need is met, they will be more likely to participate.

The past year has brought many social issues to light, and the next generation has made it clear that it’s ready to tackle these problems. It’s only fair that we give them the tools and opportunities to do so.

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Sara B. Moeller
Associate Dean for Graduate Programs and Executive Education, Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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