SMART students learn from the unexpected to make a global impact
We’re conditioned to think the professor at the front of the classroom is the only educator, but sometimes, the best lessons come from unexpected sources. In the Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Teams (SMART) program, multiple interactions play a role in education, and students learn from many of the people they encounter—especially in the field.
Housed in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, as part of the Emerging Markets Program (EMP), SMART was founded in 2001 by Ralph Christy, a professor at the Dyson School. SMART embodies the school’s vision to immerse students in unparalleled learning experiences while enhancing their educational value. Through SMART, Christy says students gain “a very deep understanding of the economic development process itself,” which shows that no single discipline or approach can solve the complex challenges of our time.
SMART gives graduate and undergraduate students the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to a specific challenge at a real company in developing and emerging economies with a two-week-long field study to the company’s headquarters, located typically in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Those trips bring the classroom to the field. They put students’ skills to the test and give them the chance to not just dive into a new culture, but make an impact and solve real problems.
Ndunge Kiiti, PhD ’02 (CALS), visiting scholar at the Dyson School, director of SMART, and a three-year team leader, encourages students to take in all of the information they can during their time abroad, which includes interacting with the local community. “We challenge the students to talk to their drivers, to get to know the people who are navigating their learning experiences. They’re from these countries, they understand a lot, and they can give students a different perspective.”
The SMART program proves there’s not just one way to engage with the world and that everyone has something to share regardless of where they come from or what they look like. “We learn from each other,” says Kiiti, “and that’s the only way we’re ever going to better understand each other. It’s in that mutual and respectful exchange that we see challenges being solved.”
Scenes from SMART: FCC, Colombia
Scenes from SMART: Azuri Health, Kenya
A multidisciplinary approach to global learning
To address complex challenges in international development, SMART is multidisciplinary in nature, and its projects can be thought of as living case studies.
“The world’s problems are complex. Many of the problems we address are systemic, and therefore require different types of knowledge and different types of solutions. One of the real hallmarks of the program is putting together teams of students from different fields to address these complex problems,” says Kiiti.
SMART is a highly competitive program. Each year, the number of participating students depends on the total projects available for the program. Since its inception, SMART has sent well over 80 teams with close to 500 students to about 27 countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. In 2019, only 35 to 40 graduate and undergraduate students were selected from a campus-wide applicant pool of close to 130 students for nine projects. Those students represent a variety of departments and schools across Cornell University. “Student applicants represent various academic units across the campus, from nutrition to food science to economics, horticulture, engineering, and computer science,” says Christy.
Scenes from SMART: Cappeny Estates, South Africa
Students from various majors are then interviewed and accepted into multidisciplinary teams of three to five people based on the needs identified by each participating company or client. The combined knowledge, skills, and expertise of the students specifically address the needs of the companies and enable them to come together as a team, contribute technical assistance, and offer useful analytical support. Each team also gets one or more team leaders, faculty advisors, and in-country support for guidance.
Companies seek out SMART because they want help examining a problem they haven’t been able to solve or haven’t had the time to address. Often, they just want someone from the outside to help by taking a look at their company operations in a broader way.
For example, Cau Chocolates, a family-owned business in Tabanan, Bali, Indonesia, wanted to gain a better understanding of their value chain from their products to their services. The local company hoped to introduce its products in international markets, but its leaders weren’t sure if global distribution was a viable option. Under the guidance of faculty advisors and Dyson professors Ralph Christy and Awan Azis, the SMART team that was paired with Cau Chocolates helped the company look at the feasibility of international business. Through their extensive research, the students laid some of the company’s groundwork for international engagement and strategy.
“Going to Indonesia was an eye-opening experience that taught me a lot about the importance of cultural context in problem solving,” wrote Mahrusah Zahin, MPS ’20, in a post-experience reflection. “We were fortunate enough to interact with all levels of stakeholders, and realized that every group from farmers to executives are looking for solutions they can carry out on their own.”
Scenes from SMART: Cau Chocolates, Indonesia
A mutual knowledge exchange
The companies learn a lot from the students—and vice versa. It’s a mutual knowledge exchange with two-way understanding and trust, which must be built and cultivated throughout the experience.
During the two-week immersion, students raise questions that help companies think outside the box. As Kiiti explains, “questioning is part of the learning process and the students are raising questions to learn, but at the same time, they are facilitating learning among these companies and the people in the field.”
According to Kiiti, knowledge-building and knowledge management is all about recognizing who the information belongs to and being good stewards of that. Ultimately, these international companies are welcoming the students, hosting them, and unveiling their business processes. They’re giving the students a peek into their worlds.
SMART team leaders and advisors equip their students with the tools they need to navigate the experience. With IRB approval for all projects, they teach them how to use the information that the companies have so graciously shared with them as they frame helpful deliverables and products.
Many times students’ academic assumptions are tested. When it comes to hands-on projects, they realize that their predetermined solutions may not always work in reality, Kiiti says.
Scenes from SMART: Mulleys Supermarket, Kenya
A 2019 team in South Africa worked with O’live, a company that makes soaps and other similar products, to explore strategies for growth. They identified three separate paths, none of which would be easy to accomplish. As one student wrote, “With the help of our incredible team leaders, we were able to pinpoint what information would be especially relevant for O’live.” Their presentation to the client included how-tos, social media and search engine optimization strategies, inventory management, and outlines of other processes relevant to growth strategies.
“The companies are often just so encouraged and so impressed by our students,” says Kiiti. “It’s encouraging for the students, too, because, in their own small way, that is their part as a student—engaging the world in a different and unique way to help solve the world’s problems.”
According to Christy, when a group of Cornell students come to a particular country or work with a particular client, everything becomes focused and formalized. “Our students do phenomenal work,” he says. “Many of our partners in the past have said about our students’ contributions and the work they have done, that it would be very difficult for them to get this type of analysis within their own countries.”
Scenes from SMART: O’live Handmade Soaps, South Africa
Real-world experience meets classroom instruction and reflection
The SMART program is considered an accelerated immersion that spans the fall and winter semesters. Students prepare as a team before they spend two weeks embedded with the company and its culture, and then return to synthesize the information and work on class deliverables.
As part of their preparation, students and team leaders take an eight-week, pre-departure course, which is built around thematic topics such as cultural competence, research methods and leadership, among others. Students also begin to engage with the company at this time, so that when they hit the ground, in-person, they have some initial analysis, which provides a better sense of the problem(s) and the types of solutions they’re going to propose. During the pre-departure course, students are encouraged to fundraise for their international flight, visas, and vaccination coverage. These are the main costs students are required to cover, since the SMART program covers all other expenses in the field.
While abroad, students are guided by their team leader and usually one or more company representatives in their day-to-day learning, debriefings, and interviews. Also in the field are Cornell alumni and others with Cornell connections who, in some instances, are part of the learning process. For instance, the 2019 SMART teams in Kenya, South Africa, and Malawi benefitted from having field advisors that were Cornell alumni in the fields of nutrition, city and regional planning, and applied economics and management. ”This greatly enhances the experience,” Christy says. “It increases security for our students and it adds a rich dimension to the learning that otherwise, you would not be able to have in a two-week span of time.”
Scenes from SMART: ASOPROCOAS, Colombia
Upon return, students take a post-engagement course where they work on synthesizing what they’ve learned and developing their observations for the company. Using peer feedback and analysis, they determine whether their initial observations and suggestions are feasible or if they need to reframe their deliverables (which include a case study or report, video, presentation, and poster) in a way that is more helpful to the company.
It’s at this time they also realize how much they have experienced and accomplished in just two weeks. “It’s always at the end when they say ‘professor, wow, I really was transformed,’” says Kiiti.
By the end of the semester, teams present their findings in a poster to the wider Cornell community during the Emerging Markets Program Annual Symposium in April.
Beyond the symposium, students are encouraged to look into avenues for publishing their work to share their global learning experience and insights into cultural humility. Historically, team leaders and students have chosen to collaborate and write short stories or reflections about their experience for magazines or journals, as well as in the travel blogs and case studies they write as part of the course.
The Emerging Markets Program has also taken SMART case studies and published them into journals and books. The program recently published a book that includes case studies from SMART projects carried out by students in Asia. Some students have even chosen to write their thesis on their SMART experience. The program’s impact is far-reaching.
“We can’t allow this to be just another event, another experiment, another class assignment,” says Kilti. “It isn’t. This process engages with companies in emerging markets with a desire to improve well-being. It really does. If you see it less than that, you’ve missed the whole point of SMART.”