Learning by Doing

As a bioengineering major, many of the classes I take are lecture-style, and are usually evaluated by a few problem sets and lengthy exams. This blog post isn’t about these classes, but I will say that these types of classes aren’t the ones I’ve appreciated in college. Slaving away to memorize equations and how to use them, random details that I will forget soon thereafter, and trying to beat the grading curve in a class of Ivy League students — it’s discouraging and disheartening to say the least. But I’ll stay positive; this post is about the other type of class — the type where you learn by doing. Because I also happen to be a marketing and entrepreneurship concentration in my business degree, I’ve had the fortune of taking a few of these types of classes as well. This semester, I took two classes that I would say fall into the “learning by doing” category. One was a marketing class, “Consumer Behavior”, and the second a management/entrepreneurship class, “Technological Entrepreneurship”.

Consumer Behavior (MKTG 211)

On the first day of Consumer Behavior, while going through the syllabus, my professor announced that there would be no exams in the class because he believed that you could only truly learn something by actually doing it. Our class was evaluated through a series of labs where we used different statistical tools to perform marketing analyses, as well as a project in which we worked with a real company to solve their real-life marketing problems. This semester, we worked with Neuro, a relatively new functional beverages company – you might not have heard of them, but I guess that’s part of the problem! Neuro actually has a pretty loyal fan base, but it’s very small. That being said, it’s apparent that people like the product when they try it. The problem was with making people aware, and then making them favorable enough to the product to purchase it.

You might be wondering what a functional beverage is. Neuro has six different types of drinks, each with its own “function”: Bliss, Sleep, Sonic, Daily, Passion and Trim. That might sound weird to you – a drink that helps you sleep, or helps you relax, or betters your sex life? That’s the consumer’s problem too – it’s just too much to believe, even with proven science behind each one. Our surveys and interviews with consumers showed the same thing – people are weirded out by a drink that promises to help you relax, even if it the bottle shows you the science behind it. Our group focused on Sonic, the drink that helps you stay awake and concentrate. Sonic contains caffeine, but also L-theanine, an ingredient also in green tea, so the idea is that the caffeine keeps you awake but the L-theanine helps avoid the caffeine crash that a drink like Red Bull or Monster causes. To me, that sounds ideal – for studying, the mornings, maybe even for going out – but it’s still hard to believe, I’d have to TRY it.

This was the idea our group based our strategy on — softening the science behind the drinks and showing the benefits in a more personal way that had lifestyle appeal. We called it “situational segmentation” – segmenting the market based on the situation a drink could be used in, and targeting consumers this way. So if you’re looking at the “studying” situation segment, Neuro should have Sonic sold at dorm cafes, university libraries, etc. We even created a music video to Avici’s “Wake Me Up” (haha, get it?) and placed Sonic in each of the different segments (I would share the video but we didn’t license the music so…). This way, a consumer who hasn’t heard of Neuro knows what Neuro can be used for, instead of just seeing the funky bottle and facts thrown at them.

While group projects can be annoying to do – with six people on a team, finding times to meet and delegating tasks can be a nightmare — I think that this one was definitely valuable. This is the exact work I would be doing if I was working in Neuro’s (or any other company’s) marketing department, and our work was usable — we presented our strategy to Neuro executives as part of our final evaluation. And it felt good that we had used the concepts from the class to come up with something that was usable but also completely our own. It’s not like that biology exam I took is useful to anyone at all; all the information on it is already written in a million different books. The class definitely underlined my interest in marketing, and I know I want it to be part of my career going forward. It also provided a lot of encouragement among some of my other classes! (I’m sure you can guess what kinds of classes those were…)

Technological Entrepreneurship (MGMT 235)

It’s easy to say “I want to start my own company” but extremely hard to know how to do it unless…well, unless you’ve done it before. I think that’s what this class encompasses. The class consisted of a number of guest lectures from successful entrepreneurs sharing their advice, and a project in which we worked with technology founders to write a business plan to commercialize their technology (and of course an amazing professor with a wealth of experience with technology-based ventures). I don’t know how this sounds to you, but I can tell you after writing the business plan, that it is the closest you can come to starting a venture without actually doing it. Our group wrote a business plan for a technology/company developed at Penn’s med school called Pathonomics. The technology was a rapid solution for pathogen detection that had applications in the food safety testing industry as well as the medical/healthcare realm.

Over the first part of the course, we read a number of business plans for technology-based ventures and learned to evaluate them, as well as the ventures they were describing. In a sense, we were being the investors, evaluating parts of ventures that could be improved and whether they would be successful and worth investing in. The second part of the class was where we became the entrepreneurs and wrote our business plan. While were writing a business plan, what we were really doing was building a business on paper — the operational plan, the marketing, the finances, everything. There were so many times we were unsure about certain things (is this actually how big our market is? Is this price appropriate?) and so many assumptions made, but there was no textbook to look it up or anyone to ask, and that’s exactly what it’s like when you’re an entrepreneur. Our final presentation was something of a pitch, or at least positioned to reach investors. Our 70+ page business plan is definitely one of my proudest pieces of work at Penn so far.

Maybe one day I’ll be building a business of my own!


Anyway, I really do think there’s a lot to be said for “learning by doing”. While starting to think about what I’m going to do next summer, I’m often worried about my GPA – what if it’s too low and companies discard me? But then I think: what is my GPA based on? It’s an average of grades that come mostly from classes that are exam-heavy. I know if I was an employer, I’d look at a candidates performance not on exams, but on projects such as the ones I’ve described above, because in what job are you required to solve problems that there are already answers to and regurgitate esoteric facts? On the flip side, most jobs require team work, solving new problems to which there is no single answer, and uncertainty – and that’s what “learning by doing” is all about.

(All just my opinions, of course.) 🙂

A big thanks to Dr. Americus Reed II and Dr. William Hamilton for teaching these amazing classes this semester.