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Learning in an MBA capstone course

Published September 17, 2021

“Design thinking and community impact: A case study of project-based learning in an MBA capstone course”

  • Chailin Cummings and Jasmine Yur-Austin
  • Journal of Education for Business
  • Publication date: March 2021
  • DOI to Review Case Study

Achieving AACSB accreditation is essential for business schools. Our research examines course design strategies for AACSB accreditation under the new 2020 Standards. Few studies in course design have demonstrated the positive consequences of integrating a novel pedagogical approach—design thinking— with project-based learning (PBL) for fostering meaningful student learning and broader community impact. Our research fills this void by illustrating an innovative way of structuring class engagement and learning in an MBA capstone course. It offers important guidance for how to organize meaningful student engagement with external stakeholders, enhance creativity, and produce impactful community outcomes.

We present a case study of the creation of a project-based MBA capstone course structured on the principles of design thinking to enhance engagement, innovation, and impact as defined in the AACSB mandate. The course project was driven by the question of how the City of Long Beach and CSULB can partner to help students and faculty start businesses and secure jobs in the City of Long Beach. It involved collaboration with the City’s Innovation Team (i-Team) to further its efforts in supporting the growth of entrepreneurship in the region, an initiative supported by a 3-year, $3 million grant from the Long Beach City Council and the Bloomberg Philanthropies Foundation.

Students were initially given a problem whose exact nature was uncertain – the nature and goal of the partnership between CSULB and the City of Long Beach. Project clarity could only be discovered through ongoing engagement and investigation between students and the i-Team as they collaboratively applied PBL and design thinking. Our study explains the central role of design thinking in the five-stage project development process - empathize, define, ideate, prototyping, and testing.  It highlights the in-depth engagement and collaboration between students and the i-Team in the learning process, which enabled students to deliver meaningful and impactful outcomes to the City of Long Beach.

Our study reveals that the empathy students developed towards the i-Team during the initial stage of project development helped them cope with the felt ambiguity and confusion of the amorphous task. Through taking mental detours, students were able to engage in open exploration, which, albeit drifting and wandering at times, led to insightful discoveries that the i-Team had not considered before. While feedback from the i-Team was important to the project development, the creative process of searching for a sensible problem definition and solution evolved as much for the i-Team as for the students. The mutual learning and feedback fueled an in-depth investigation and accelerated the learning process for all participants. Students became co-creators of the project as they gradually uncovered and defined its vague parameters and eventual outcomes. The more students immersed themselves in the project, the greater their sense of ownership, and the more their learning was internalized and valued. They enacted empathy and caring for the project and their i-Team collaborators as they transitioned from passive investigators to vicarious problem-holders to active problem solvers.

For student learning to be meaningful and to impact practical stakeholders, applying design thinking to student project development is a productive pedagogy. It promotes engagement, solutions, and most importantly, power for transforming students’ academic experiences into useful outcomes. Design thinking embraces ill-defined problems. It not only invites but necessitates open-ended exploration leading to meaningful discoveries and learning.

As the Deputy of Office of the Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia commented on the project, “The students' analysis, creative thinking and major time devoted is impressive. Many people, for years to come, will benefit from the work they are doing now.” Our research provides a blueprint for building design thinking into courses involving complex class projects for achieving community engagement, innovation, and impact.