Initial Publication Date: March 3, 2022

Using the Mississippi River Watershed Module in Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Sustainability

Bart Sharp, Northern Illinois University

Course Description

About the Course

Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Sustainability

Level: Introductory general education course
Size: 45 students
Format: In-person

Course specific exercise »

Examination of strategic aspects of launching and scaling an entrepreneurial venture with a focus on opportunity identification, feasibility analysis, sustainability and business planning. Develops knowledge about innovation in a variety of contexts

There were a number of students that talked about this wicked problem exercise as being something that really was relevant to them, that led them to see things differently.

Explore the Mississippi River Watershed Module »

Relationship of the Mississippi Watershed Module to Your Course

The module was implemented over the course of two weeks in the middle of a 16 week long course. Prior to the module we had discussed topics such as individual characteristics of entrepreneurs, innovation and creativity, opportunity recognition, and social entrepreneurship. We had also heard from a number of guest speakers operating in a variety of different industries. After the module, students would regularly refer back to the concept of "wicked problems" as we continued to hear from more entrepreneurs dealing with their own highly complex and uncertain environments.

Integrating the Module into Your Course

In my case, it was actually really easy because it's an introductory entrepreneurship class and so it's a gen ed and I have people from across the university all different majors all different colleges. For the idea of bringing together multiple different perspectives to try to tackle really difficult problems, that's already baked into the foundation of the class so from that perspective, it was easy. Mechanically, I carved out two weeks right in the middle of the semester, four class periods for the common exercise. In the first period, it was a presentation that I gave just sort of orienting them, giving them the introduction to the problem itself and wicked problems in general. The second class period was their small group stakeholder mapping with some guidance from me, but groups of three or four people got together and they work together to do that. The third class period was our town hall meeting, which turned into a really interesting conversation and debate among some of the students. It's a class of 45 people, and like always, you have a fairly normal distribution. You have 10 or 15 people that are really into this and take the lead in those conversations, and some that laid back, which is predictable. And then the final class was the group collective stakeholder map, and that was really wild, an interesting exercise in brainstorming. That was the common exercise, then for the core specific exercise it was a writing assignment that they did outside of class, and it was very broad.

Basically, gave them a prompt to take any of the material that we had talked about up to that point, from the textbook, we'd had a number of guest speakers, any of the tools, techniques, processes of entrepreneurship, and talk about how that might be applicable to this specific wicked problem It really opened it up for them to apply the material as they as they saw fit.

What Worked Well

I think the best thing about this year's experience was being able to engage with the students face to face, because I was able to borrow from the energy and the expertise of the students that were already naturally engaged. And at the same time, I was also able, to a certain extent, draw out students that otherwise would have chosen not to engage. Because we were there in a room, together, we were having a conversation, and I could call on people and ask for their input and ask for their opinions So for me that that made the overall experience and much more effective.

Challenges and How They Were Addressed

One of the challenges was keeping the class's attention focused, especially when it came to the plenary stakeholder map creation and like I said it was a wild experience in brainstorming which was great, and I think the outcome was positive and the experience was very developmental, but there was a certain amount of chaos. There were a few jokers that were just sort of lobbing things out as part of the brainstorm. As somebody who has been involved in a lot of different innovative processes, I actually still see the value in that, because you never know when somebody's sort of off the wall goofy, maybe intentionally stupid, comment might trigger a thought in somebody else that leads to something that's actually a meaningful insight. So, I struggled with that a little bit in the moment to find that balance between keeping people laser focused on task and at the same time, letting this creative process play out, but I think, in the end, it did work well.

Student Response to the Module and Activities

They did. The clearest evidence of that came in the reflection papers. So, at the end of every class I teach I asked students to write a just a one or two page paper basically putting the material from the class in their context based on what you plan on doing with your life, your career. What out of this semester is resonating? There were a number of students that talked about this wicked problem exercise as being something that really was relevant to them, that led them to see things differently. I think we, we collectively, love simple answers and we love to believe that there are simple answers. So, for the students, a lot of "wow oh my, there is no answer!" that was a new concept for them. I think to that extent the evidence I saw there they really did get it, and it did have that positive impact on them. But again, not universally. I actually had one student, interestingly enough an engineering major, who in their reflection paper talked about how that whole thing was silly, of course there's a solution we just haven't found it yet. So it's interesting how people from different backgrounds, with different experiences, take away different things. But I'd say overwhelmingly, I think we achieve the outcome we were we were striving for.