In Class: Team trainer

College of Business professor Steven Michael. (Image by L. Brian Stauffer)
Steven Michael is a mathematician and engineer who teaches entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation at the College of Business

I’ve spent the last 10 years teaching in the University of Illinois Hoeft Technology & Management Program. The program is unique—in the country and around the world—because it brings students together from different disciplines. Our engineering students take business courses, and our business students take engineering courses. They learn to respect the limits and the power of other disciplines without necessarily coming to master them.

As a teacher of young professionals, I model both patterns of thought and patterns of behavior. I always teach class wearing a coat and tie, except in our project-based classes. Then I wear a tie, but I don’t wear a coat.

I teach in a mixed format of lecture and case discussion. Case method teaching is very valuable for the students because it forces them to articulate their reasoning. And often they’re not good at that. They’re often quick to have an opinion. But when I ask for the reasons behind their opinion, they have to defend it. 

Most business achievements now are achievements of a team. One thinks of human factors, one thinks of mechanical engineering, manufacturing engineering, radio frequency circuit design. Such things are incredibly complicated and require people who can work with others.

(Image by L. Brian Stauffer)

The students have to come to know each other. They have to trust each other enough to be willing to attempt to puzzle out problems, to advocate for a point of view. Students often are too quick to get along. They have to learn to challenge each other, respectfully. They have to learn that you can disagree about a course of action and still be very good friends.

Students are assigned a project for a company. The projects are usually innovation-based: product innovation, process innovation, marketing innovation, how to build a strategy around innovation. We travel to the company site and meet the sponsor and talk at some length about the project. Then we come back to campus. We sit together and try to structure a set of tools that we’re going to use to address these questions, and then develop a timeline and a project plan. After that we meet twice a week to make sure that we’re on time and within budget. There’s not much of a budget, actually. 

The students have definitely impacted real businesses by live websites, by product development, feature development for different companies. They’ve improved internal efficiencies for some companies. They’ve helped make purchase decisions and even strategic decisions.

Intellectually, I see them grow. Professionally, I see them mature. Oftentimes, there are students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students not from prominent public high schools. Some are from Chicago. Some are from rural areas.  Some of them have an immigrant heritage. Some of them are of underrepresented minority heritage. Many of them really see an opportunity in the Hoeft program, and they seize it.  And it’s beautiful to see.

I’m astonished and forever grateful that so many students trusted me with a corner of their mind.

My wife says I’ll die in the classroom. She’s probably right.

Edited and condensed from an interview conducted on June 12, 2014.