And the next presenter is...an undergraduate student!?

Team from Puget Sound business class wows profs at national academic conference

By Mary Boone

Five Puget Sound juniors can thank an E. coli crisis at the Puyallup Fair for propelling them into the national academic spotlight.

During the 1998 fair, several cases of E. coli bacteria sickness were discovered in Pierce County, where the fair is located. The only connection the county health department discovered between the victims was that they had all attended the Puyallup Fair during the same time period. The health department never determined whether the source of the bacteria was corn dogs or elephant ears or the petting zoo–or if, in fact, the bacteria was really tied to the fair at all.

When Professor John Dickson and former Puget Sound Professor Mark Fiegener assigned their then sophomore-level Business Leadership Program class to write case studies integrating the disciplines of marketing and management, Wendy Olson ’01 and her teammates decided the fair’s E. coli crisis would be the perfect subject.

"We had other ideas, but the fair seemed fun," says Olson. "There were lots of angles from which to look at the case, it was current, and the fair was something we could relate to. It wasn’t stuffy and academic."

Academicians–stuffy or not–apparently liked the Puget Sound students’ thinking. The group’s case, "Rumors Infect the Puyallup Fair," was the only undergraduate work accepted for presentation at the North American Case Research Annual Meeting in Santa Rosa, Calif., in October.

"I still don’t know if the students fully realize the significance of having their paper accepted," says Dickson. "The other presenters at this conference were professors and a few graduate students, and most of the graduate students had their papers rewritten or redrafted by their professors.

"This was not me and my paper. This was 100 percent the work of five Puget Sound undergraduates. I can’t tell you how terrific or novel that is."

Olson, who presented the paper on behalf of classmates Jodie Char ’01, Jeff Grayson ’01, John Nowell ’01 and Erin Vranas ’01, spearheaded the process of preparing the case study for consideration.

"To tell you the truth, I don’t know that I had any idea what I was getting myself into," says Olson. "It’s probably best that I didn’t know, or I might have been intimidated into not trying."

During the conference, Olson participated in a day-long round table critique of case studies–during that exercise, her colleagues were five professors.

"Even a Ph.D. student might have made me feel less nervous, but it was just me and the professors. And they’d all been doing this for years, so I think they were surprised when I said. ‘All I can do is give you a student’s perspective,’" Olson recalls. "I don’t know what they thought at first, but I think by the end several of them realized it had been a long time since they’d considered what students might think of a particular case."

Dickson says the paper’s topic set it apart in reviewers’ minds, and the style of writing made it fun for college students to read.

"One of the things I heard over and over from professors attending the conference was how refreshing it was to have Wendy there. They enjoyed the opinion of someone who might actually read the various cases in class," Dickson says. "Isn’t it funny: We’re in the business of marketing, but we don’t often think about our customers, and in this case students are definitely our customers."

Dickson and Olson teamed up during the conference to make a presentation on the case-writing process. The topic generated considerable interest.

"I was amazed because there was an East Coast university professor there who talked about graduate students writing cases," recalls Olson. "He said, ‘But they’re just students, they’re not publishable.’

"So, when we got up there and talked about college sophomores writing a case study that got accepted and published in the conference Proceedings, it really turned heads."

Dickson started challenging his Puget Sound business students to write cases three years ago. He divides his sophomore classes into teams of four to five, and partners them with a mentor from the business community. Nicole Rolfness of AK Media mentored Olson’s team.

"The mentor is there to serve as a sounding board, but that’s it," says Dickson, who’s taught at Puget Sound since 1980. "We really try to keep this process hands-off. If I said, ‘This is how it should be,’ or gave them models to work from, all the papers would read like I did them. That’s not what learning and innovation are about."

Dickson raised the bar with last year’s class when he dangled the carrot of publication in front of them.

"When I said it, I wasn’t sure anyone would pursue it," says Dickson.

Olson wasn’t sure either.

"Professor Dickson gave our group a pamphlet about the conference when we got our paper back, but it was almost summer and we were all going separate ways, so it sort of got put on the back burner," she says. It wasn’t until 10 days before submissions were due that Dickson convinced his students to send in their case.

"I’d planned to rework parts of it and make it better, but by then it was too late," admits Olson. "I only had a week and a half to prepare a teaching note to go with it, and I’d never even seen a teaching note."

Olson and her classmates were astounded when the letter arrived saying their paper had been accepted. "We were all really excited to get the case published, but then we started worrying about things like who was going to get to go to California for the conference. That’s when I started learning some real lessons about group dynamics."

Both Dickson and Olson say the students’ success has raised expectations for future Business Leadership Program classes.

"On the plus side, I think it will increase the quality of work students turn in," says Olson. "They’ll see that we did it, so they’ll know it’s definitely possible to get published as undergrads. I just hope all the papers don’t start looking like ours. Our style won’t work for every topic."

Dickson says students are beginning to understand that acceptance at a conference like the North American Case Research Annual Meeting can be a stepping stone to publication in journals and textbooks.

"This is a tremendous boost for the school and for these students," he says. "To be able to incorporate this into their résumés will help the five students involved as they apply to grad schools and enter the job market. And the school benefits because of the excitement that ripples from this small group to our other students.

"The only downside I can see is that our papers become so good that maybe the day will come when I would have five groups of students whose work was accepted at a conference like this. I don’t know how I could logistically handle that," he says with a grin. "But I guess I could learn to deal with a problem like that."