Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
May 12, 2006
DEKALB, Ill. — Students from Northern Illinois University recently concluded projects that will help a Belvidere company launch a new, environmentally safe cleaning product and improve the state of mental health care in the Rock River Valley.
These dramatically different projects were both conducted through the Experiential Learning Center, located in the Northern Illinois University College of Business. The center recruits teams of students to tackle real-world projects provided by businesses and not-for-profit agencies.
“It is a win-win proposition,” says director of the center Jane Mall. “For the students, it provides a priceless real-world opportunity to apply the lessons they have been learning in the classroom. For the customers, it is an opportunity to receive some insightful, inexpensive consulting work.”
When the center accepts a project, it recruits a team of five or six students to take on the job. The team, which is coached by a member of the college faculty, typically meets with its client early in the semester to learn more about the company or agency, define the scope of the project and set some goals. They usually meet with the company at least once over the ensuing semester, but are often in frequent contact to make sure they are staying on track. At the end of the 16-week semester, they make a formal presentation to the client and present them with a detailed report. Students are graded on their performance, earn class credit.
“The projects are usually very focused, but it is still a very condensed process,” says Mall. “The students are asked to do in a matter of a few months what professionals might take a year or more to tackle. But our clients tell us that they consistently turn in professional quality work.”
Unleashing a Green Revolution
It takes guts for consultants to tell his or their customer that they’ve got it all wrong – especially when that consultant is a group of college students.
However, that is just what students from the NIU Experiential Learning Center did when they met with executives from Belvidere-based Deveco on May 3 to discuss a marketing plan for a new bio-based glass and surface cleaner. Surprisingly, Deveco executives say that they couldn’t be more pleased.
The company approached the NIU Experiential Learning Center looking for advice on how to bring its new bio-based window and surface cleaning product to market. Long a leader in providing cleaning solutions and other products to the metal working industry Deveco was looking for advice on how to pitch their product to the consumer market.
The company had previously sold the cleaning product, made primarily from corn products, at county fairs and a few other venues, but thought it had greater potential. They gave the NIU team free reign to alter anything about the appearance of the product and develop a marketing plan, and the students took them at their word.
“It’s tough to tell someone, ‘We looked at your product and it’s the wrong color, it has the wrong label, the bottle is the wrong shape and it has the wrong name,’” says Deveco President Dan Stanton. “But the NIU students did it in such a professional manner, with such well researched data to back up their claims that not only did they convince us, they did so in a manner that wasn’t insulting or demeaning.”
During their presentation the student team explained that their changes were aimed at creating a product with a more elegant image that would be attractive to environmentally conscious consumers. They proposed making the purple liquid clear, using a more streamlined bottle and a very simple uncluttered label. They also suggested that the product could most effectively be sold at health-food stores, online and at farmers markets.
The team also provided extensive financial data, survey data and other information to support their suggestions. Stanton said his company is open to all of the ideas presented.
“I had been told that the students we would be dealing with would be the cream of the crop, so I had high expectations, and they met every one of them” said Stanton. “I really expected quality work from these students, and I got it.”
“The one thing that surprised me was the maturity and confidence of these students,” Stanton added. “They did a better job on their presentation than many professionals I have encountered during my career. The ELC is truly a great resource.”
Furthermore, says Stanton, his company is likely to apply the recommendations from the students as it launches the cleaning product.
“We are very open to all of the ideas they presented. With our core business being industrial, this was new to us, and their ideas were better than what we had come up with ourselves.”
“The goal of the ELC is to use the energy and excitement that students bring to the projects to infuse some new ideas and suggestions. I think this team succeeded on all counts,” said Mall. “I think they helped make some significant and creative plans to the company’s marketing plan.”
The company approached the NIU Experiential Learning Center at the suggestion of officials at NIU’s Attach initiative who were working with the company on commercializing some of its products. AgTech also helped the company secure a grant from the Rock River Valley Entrepreneurship Center to partially fund the project.
Students participating in the project were marketing majors Kristen Prinke, Laura Rollinger and Corey Perkins, finance major Ami Stanton and MBA student David Haas. Joining the business students on the project was Megan Koehler, a fine arts-design major who worked with the team on redesigning the packaging and label and creating promotional materials. The team was coached by Joan Petros, a member of the faculty in the NIU College of Business.
Web site aims to improve mental health care
One in five Americans will likely experience some sort of mental illness during their lifetime, and many will turn to their primary care physician for help. Unfortunately, studies have shown, many of those doctors are often unaware of the myriad of resources available in their communities to help those patients.
In an effort to help bridge that gap locally, Mental Health Association of the Rock River Valley turned to the Experiential Learning Center at NIU.
In January, a team of NIU business students was tasked with devising a tool that would provide primary care physicians information about resources and support networks available in
Rockford and surrounding communities, and also foster closer working relationships between the various entities that provide mental health care in Rockford.
“Pediatricians, internists and other primary care physicians are quite willing to do things to help people with mental illness, but they are also extremely busy,” said Dr. Charles Smith, a retired physician who now sits on the board of the MHARRV. “These doctors need more tools, more information and a way to reach more people that they can work with.”
That was a tall order for a one-semester project, but board members at the MHARRV say that the NIU students succeeded nicely.
To help them devise ways of overcoming those hurdles, the NIU team spoke with mental health care providers and physicians, and also researched efforts to bridge this gap in other communities around the country.
The most effective solution, the NIU students concluded, was to create a comprehensive Web site filled with links to local agencies providing services ranging from after-school activities to counseling and temporary shelter, for everyone from children, to veterans to senior citizens. The Web site, which debuted at the team’s presentation to MHARRV leaders, also includes links to nationwide mental health organizations, pharmaceutical companies and other resources. In its presentation, the team also recommended building upon existing Web logs and creating chat groups to facilitate convenient communication between physicians and mental health care providers.
The site can be viewed online at www.rockfordmentalhealth.org
“We had been sort of thinking in that direction ourselves,” says Smith of the Web site. “However, working with the ELC we were able to develop the tool much more expertly than if we had attempted the project on our own. We were quite impressed by the ability of the students to get a handle on such a complex set of issues and develop a solution.”
The task was a unique opportunity said NIU Marketing Professor Debra Zahay, who coached the team.
“A lot of people were confused as to why business school students were working with the mental health association, but in this instance it made sense. We were able to apply business principals to the problem and find a solution,” she said. “It was a terrific learning opportunity for the students, and a wonderful way of giving back to the community,”
Students working on the project were accountancy majors Ray Salvado and Mitchell Siergiej, marketing major Danielle Scovel, and MBA students Kystyn Yordon and Emily Herbes. The project was funded by a Venture Grant from the NIU Foundation. Part of the grant money will be used to pay for Web hosting services for the site for three years.