Putting theory into practice: Professor's approach to hands-on learning
Professor Lee Zane
College of Business Administration assistant professor Dr. Lee Zane didn’t start out in academia. In fact, he spent nearly 20 years running his own software business and worked in pretty much every capacity in the field as first a programmer, then an analyst, manager, and finally, entrepreneur. Founding and growing a business requires the wearing of many hats, from sales to support and everything in between. Following the sale of the business, he earned his Bachelor of Science in Management Information Systems from Rowan University and in 2011 he finished his doctoral degree which focused on strategy and entrepreneurship from Drexel University. Now, he has brought both his professional and academic experience into the classroom, where he often refers to his two decades in the field to give his students the practical tools they need to succeed in the business sphere.
He expects his students to do more than read textbooks and memorize facts. “I want them to learn the theory, yes, but more importantly, I want them to be able to put into practice what they read and apply that knowledge to actual situations and issues.”
To that end, Zane’s Small Business Management students are given group projects that teach collaboration, research skills, and ultimately, smart strategy. “I ask students to come up with a business concept. They form teams and we guide them on how to do research — how to look at the industry as a whole, the market, and the competition — then, they have to evaluate the business concept and what strategy they should take based on that research.”
During tests, Zane takes this same real world approach by allowing students to bring in one sheet of paper to the exam — on that paper, they can put whatever they think they need. “In the professional world, you’re allowed to have materials and to bring them to a task. Giving students options about what they want for the test also teaches them how to determine for themselves what’s necessary to include and what to leave out.”
“As a professor, I have three main roles that I’m moving in at all times. First, I need to keep up with my own research in small businesses and entrepreneurship — so I can stay up to date with what’s happening in the industry and bring that into the classroom,” he explains. “Secondly, I need to always be looking at better ways to teach my students what I know. And lastly, I need to be working in a service role to continually improve our curriculum.”
To fulfill these roles, Zane serves as the program director for Entrepreneurial Studies and, in that capacity, he helped to develop a new class this fall, Introduction to Entrepreneurship, which is open to freshman and sophomores, regardless of their focus. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a dance major or a science major, all students can benefit from a class that teaches them how to reason, examine, and evaluate ideas. This course asks them to think about their passion and investigate ways they can take that interest and turn it into a successful business venture.”
Students are required to look into the feasibility of their projects, and their final grade isn’t based on the potential success of their prospective business, but on the research, the development of the concept, and their understanding of the possible risks and rewards of the venture. They are asked not only to look at market trends, but also to interview a minimum of twenty-five people to get a sample of the interest level for their idea. This requirement helps them understand the reach of the project and gets them out into the world talking to people, and developing their interpersonal skills.
Often, Zane finds, students learn just as much or more when they discover that their business idea is not as easy to execute as they first thought. “You’ll have a student who says, “I want to open a bar in Times Square that’s decorated with floor to ceiling aquariums.’ And I’ll say, ‘Good, let’s start looking at the details. How much does it cost to rent restaurant space in Times Square? What kind of glass would you need to build the aquarium? What’s the process for getting a liquor license in Manhattan? Who do you have to hire to keep those tanks clean and the fish alive?’” Taking a look at the whole picture (broad scope as well as the details) again gives students the chance to really weigh and evaluate the pros and cons of their initial idea—and to adapt them into more successful ones.
Along the way, Zane also helps connect students with internship opportunities that allow them to learn the industry. He and his colleagues work hard to make sure that the internships offered give students true responsibility and the chance to participate at a higher level. “We don’t let internships translate into menial jobs; we don’t want to waste our students’ time. We want them to have meaningful positions so that they are fully prepared for their chosen career.”