'It's encouraging to see businesses and educators working together;' fun, too

[caption id="attachment_10828" align="alignleft" width="360" caption="Medtronic CardioVascular operations director Don Chigazola leads an SSU operations management class onsite in a Medtronic training room."][/caption]

ROHNERT PARK - Students at Sonoma State University's School of Business are trying out a new way of learning operations management by attending classes onsite at local companies.

The four-week experimental class is the brainchild of Jim Robison, who took up teaching after a long business career  and believes students can learn as much from inside a company as in the classroom.

"I was arranging one or two tours a semester for my operations management classes, but the logistics of getting the students from the university to a company site were difficult. I thought, why not hold the class onsite and really dig into the day-to-day operations," he said.

But the one-company approach wasn't very practical he found, so Dr. Robison approached a number of  local businesses and came up with a model that exposed students to a variety of different operations while they received their basic instruction at a different location each week.

For example, students met at Agilent Technologies for four days, exploring up to three other companies in the vicinity and then returning to the telecommunications equipment company's training rooms each morning.

Agilent has a state-of-the art conference room, but Dr. Robison found the smaller training rooms effective.

"If you put a group of students in a large room, they all gravitate toward the back rows. Training rooms and small conference rooms are perfect," he said.

He was surprised by the enthusiasm of the companies he approached with the idea. Host companies were happy to supply a lecturer, followed by a tour that illustrated the principles discussed.

At Medtronic CardioVascular, operations director Don Chigazola talked about statistical process control and then showed it to the students in practice.

According to SSU School of Business Dean Bill Silver, getting students out into the field is critical to their employability.

"Graduates of 2009 and 2010 will encounter employers who expect them to be 'combat ready,' so to speak, to contribute immediately," Dr. Silver said.

"Their exposure to a cross section of local companies develops the students' benchmarking skills and also gives us an opportunity to reach out to the business community."

Parker Compumotor and La Tortilla Factory also hosted the group for a week. Companies toured included Lemo USA Inc., Arcturus Marine Systems, GPM, Korbel Distributions Center, SMC Stoesser, Filtration Group, Amy's Kitchen, Zap Motors and State Farm Insurance. Jim Keegan of commercial real estate brokerage Keegan & Coppin Inc. guest-lectured about company site location.

Asked for feedback, students commented on the value of learning terminology in class and then actually hearing it used by workers.

"The thing that really surprised me was all these companies being in a town I've lived in my whole life," said Lindsey Wolfe, a senior who loved "seeing the behind-the-scenes process of how everything gets to me, the consumer."

According to Agilent spokesman Jeff Weber, his company was delighted to foster a connection between coursework and careers. Employees benefited by sharing their knowledge, he said.

"The students had great questions. And given the current budget problems in the state, it's encouraging to see businesses and educators working together to meet the needs of students and produce a qualified graduating work force. Besides, it was fun," said Mr. Weber.