Experiential learning empowers community (2024)

Sticky notes fill the whiteboard. Voices across the room overlap. One student types furiously into a laptop while another refers to a spreadsheet. Questions hang in the air. The project deadline is just weeks away.

This is the “messy middle” of the Carlson Impact Lab, where more than just a passing grade is at stake. The Carlson School of Management students are working with Special Olympics Minnesota to identify ways to increase engagement ahead of the 2026 Special Olympics USA Games, which will be hosted at the University of Minnesota. With the national spotlight, the organization wants to supercharge the movement of inclusion statewide, leaving a legacy beyond the Games.

“There’s an actual purpose on what we’re researching and doing, so it definitely created motivation and drive to do our best,” says Rachel Secrist, a sophom*ore at the U of M.

This past academic year marked the first cohort of students enrolling in the Impact Lab, a required, two-course experience that’s part of the Carlson School’s award-winning undergraduate curriculum. In year one, students learn how to problem-solve. In year two, they apply these lessons via Impact Lab in Action. Throughout the semester, students work with an organization to assess a business problem, provide recommendations, and create implementable deliverables.

Amee McDonald, the Impact Lab’s managing director, says the goal is to empower students early in their undergraduate careers with more experiential learning opportunities to grow and learn.

“This is a space where we’re giving them the boundaries and then they have to take the initiative to really make this experience what it’s supposed to be for their learning,” explains McDonald. “And then if they experience that failure, this is a safe space to fail.”

Throughout the semester, student teams work closely with their instructors and mentors to explore possible solutions for their client. In Special Olympics Minnesota’s case, the organization is on a campaign to attract the next generation of volunteer coaches, targeting young adults and tapping into networks beyond athletes’ family members.

One team focused on improving Special Olympics Minnesota’s TikTok strategy to better connect with young adults. After analyzing the historical volunteer data, they outlined several strategies, such as developing videos that highlight powerful volunteer experiences and capitalizing on social media trends, to create more engaging content.

Dave Dorn, the president and CEO of Special Olympics Minnesota, applauded the thoroughness of the students’ insights, which he says the organization plans to incorporate when building its strategic plan for the Games.

“It’s good to get young people’s perspective on issues that you’re tackling,” says Dorn. “It does open your eyes to questions you should consider, especially when these are the people that we want to take the movement to that next level.”

After completing the Impact Lab, undergraduates can expand their résumé with additional experiential learning opportunities by applying to the Leadership Lab. Last semester, students in that lab partnered with Dinkytown Athletes. The new collective serves as the resource for Gophers student-athletes as they navigate opportunities to monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL) under the new NCAA rules.

With the NIL industry being so new, the Leadership Lab students decided to conduct a survey to identify a target audience for NIL promotions and also complete outreach to determine which Twin Cities businesses were interested in working with Dinkytown Athletes to create NIL partnerships with student-athletes.

“The data they got is just gold because as a startup we couldn’t have done that ourselves,” says Derek Burns, ’00 BSB, and former Gophers football player, who co-founded the startup. “We would’ve had to go to a market research agency to just even get that information. So that was huge. We almost have a blueprint now on what we can take on and where to efficiently use our time and resources to grow.”

Jenna Vilter, a junior in the Undergraduate Program, says her experience in the Leadership Lab cemented her decision to pursue business.

“It’s so hands-on, you feel like you are part of the progress that the companies are making and I never would have expected to be doing that before I got my degree,” says Vilter. “It’s super cool as a junior in college to be able to say that.”

It’s an experience students are hungry for.

“The best experience is real-world experience,” says Trenton Knutson, a sophom*ore. “Getting into the nitty-gritty of it. Because when you work with real people, it has real impact, and you do feel that.”

See the original version of this story at the Carlson School of Management.

Experiential learning empowers community (2024)


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