The New ‘Big Idea’ From Wharton MBAs

The presentation started something like this:

“Who here has had a Coca-Cola product in the past year?” Nearly the entire room of eager MBA students raised their hands.

“Who here has had chocolate in the past year?” Again, a near unanimous show of hands.

“Who here has done cocaine in the past year?”

Only the whisper of the air conditioning could be heard, until the room erupted in laughter.

Catchy start aside, the presenter and his team from Cohort I were part of an important new pre-term program called “The Big Idea.”

The exercise kicked off on Monday morning, Aug. 20, when Marc Meredith, an assistant professor in Penn’s Department of Political Science who also holds an appointment in Wharton’s Business Economics and Public Policy Department, presented the new MBAs with a practice “Big Idea”: If they were in either the Romney or Obama presidential campaigns, how would they allocate resources for the remaining months before the election? Meredith was then joined by top Wharton faculty from the OPIM, Statistics and Marketing departments, who discussed how they would approach the question from their given discipline.

MBA students of Cohort I present their “Big Idea.”

That brings us to our presentation before Cohort I about cocaine (whose sales worldwide last year totaled more than Coke and chocolate by the way) and ways to stem the tide of its illicit trade.

After Monday’s “Big Idea” session with faculty, the cohorts of Wharton’s Class of 2014 split into their 12 Learning Teams (with which they will complete class assignments during the first year) and chose their own “massively complex” problem to contemplate, explains Vice Dean of the MBA Program Howard Kaufold. The groups were tasked with thinking of the disciplines and tools needed to break down their problems, and designing a poster and planning a presentation to reveal their findings to the rest of their cohort. Those presentations, the finale of “The Big Idea,” happened on Thursday, Aug. 24.

As Kaufold explains, the exercise was an outgrowth of the total redesign of pre-term that occurred alongside the new MBA curriculum rollout. The first week of this year’s two-week pre-term focused on getting the students acclimated and familiar with campus, Wharton staff, and their fellow cluster and Learning Team mates. The second week, and in particular “The Big Idea,” served as a transition.

“We were looking for an exercise that would help them begin to transition back into academic activity,” Kaufold says.

“The Big Idea” also was part team-building, part motivation. It showed the MBA students the scale of the problems that they will be able to tackle after graduation, as well as the interaction among the various academic fields on campus.

Learning Team “Big Ideas” ranged from how to best select a host city for the Olympics, to how to stem the high teen birth rate in the U.S., to conquering financial illiteracy, to how to survive a zombie apocalypse. Yes, “The Big Idea” was an innovative part of Wharton’s new MBA pre-term, but it was fun too.

Students design their paper airplanes.

After each presentation in Cohort I, any audience members with questions were required to write them on paper airplanes and throw them at the presenters. Closest to the mark got to ask the question. Then each Learning Group placed its poster on the classroom wall. The entire cohort perused the posters, graded the presentations and voted for the winner.

The winning team in each cohort earned a dinner at a fine Philadelphia restaurant.

When that was first announced, one of Cohort I’s eager new MBA students raised his hand.

“Which restaurant?” he asked.

Editor’s note: For more photos from “The Big Idea,” visit the Wharton Flickr stream.

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