Fearing the first

Some hands-on learning is riskier than others

“Managing someone else’s money is extremely stressful, exciting and, ultimately, rewarding.” – Annette Rubin Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
“Managing someone else’s money is extremely stressful, exciting and, ultimately, rewarding.” – Annette Rubin
“Managing someone else’s money is extremely stressful, exciting and, ultimately, rewarding.” – Annette Rubin Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

Senior nursing student Jae Moon Chung will probably never forget his first experience with a nursing home resident. It was 7 a.m., the room was dark, and the man needed to wake up and get ready for breakfast.

“I was so nervous I could not even enter the resident’s room. It took us a good three minutes before our instructor forced us to go in and introduce ourselves,’’ Chung recalls.

Every day, students are putting new life in the old proverb: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Educators call it experiential learning. Students say it prepares them for the professional challenges they’ll face following graduation. Their experiences allow them to leap from theory to practice and apply classroom knowledge in the outside world. Senior nursing student Victoria Cooper sums it up best: “How would you feel about having a mechanic who had never touched an engine before working on your car?’’

But sometimes that first leap can leave a student with sweaty palms, a racing heart and a flush of fear that something will go wrong.

“It can be a little overwhelming,’’ says Lori Sprague ’95, MS ’09, clinical assistant professor of the Decker School of Nursing and the instructor who encouraged Chung to enter the room.

Before students get the opportunity to work with nursing home residents or patients in hospitals, Sprague and fellow instructors prepare them for the demands they will face.

“We do a lot of role modeling. How do you act? How do you talk? [The students] assume the role pretty quickly,’’ she says. “You’ll see all that critical thinking coming alive.” It’s also crucial that students feel safe and supported, she adds. “It’s a scary and intense time for them. Their head always has to be in the game.’’

During his visit, Chung and his partner had to change a dressing.

“Now that I think back, it was a relatively simple task. But back then, my hands were shaking and I could not think straight. I just couldn’t figure out how and where to place the gauze,’’ Chung says. “Then, Professor Sprague told me, ‘Just put it there. It’s perfect where you’re holding it.’”

Real money, real risk

In the School of Management, finance students are honing their skills by making buy-and-sell decisions for the Binghamton University Investment Fund.

First, they do their homework. They consider macroeconomic trends. They consider cash flow and other financial models. They factor in upcoming events they think will affect stock performance. Then they make a pitch to their peers about why the stock will be a winner.

The gains and losses in the fund are no simulation; they involve real money.

Beginning with $100,000 in 2003, the fund now exceeds $300,000. Its portfolio is benchmarked against the Standard & Poor’s 500, which measures the stock value of 500 leading companies. The fund has approximately 40 stocks of mostly large companies such as Facebook, Apple, Starbucks, General Motors and Bank of America.

Participation in the fund is a noncredit, experiential learning exercise, strictly extracurricular.

“Managing someone else’s money is extremely stressful, exciting and, ultimately, rewarding,” says Annette Rubin, a junior majoring in business administration. “The first time I pitched a stock to my peers I was definitely anxious and nervous. I had done my research, so I was confident going into the presentation, but I had no idea what to expect for questions from my peers, or what specific aspects of my pitch they would press me on.

“With each pitch I have successfully presented, my nerves have definitely subsided. I have learned how to express my opinions thoughtfully and respectfully, build my analytical skills, and I now have experience following the markets daily with a purpose.’’

For senior Eric Dohn, who spent his summer as an 80-hour-a-week investment banking analyst with JPMorgan Chase, managing the fund’s technology sector requires him to review the stocks in that sector, make buy or sell decisions and then devise a presentation to convince the other analysts.

“I think managing the actual money makes it more real. It’s a little stressful,’’ Dohn says. “My sector alone is about $50,000. It’s real money, so the decisions actually matter.’’

Students have to have sound fundamental reasons for buying a stock, says Dennis Lasser, associate professor with the School of Management and director of the investment fund. He factors in the quality of the student analyst’s pitch, even if he doesn’t care for the stock. “It’s a group decision. If they all want it, it’s their call. We’ve had some disagreements, and they’ve been right and I’ve been wrong at times.

“It always makes a difference when you’re using real money,’’ Lasser says. “They can write on their résumé, ‘I worked on this fund. Here’s how many dollars I was responsible for. Here’s how my performance was.’ Instead of just playing fictitiously, you’ve got real money, you’ve got real data to show what you did.’’

Thinking fast and furious

College students are frequently assessed on their mastery of a subject. Usually it’s in the classroom. Sometimes it’s in a parking lot.

At the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science, each year approximately 45 students in Binghamton’s Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) design and build three vehicles: a formula-style electric racer, a gasoline-powered “supermileage’’ vehicle and an off-road mini Baja (think dune buggy.)

“It’s really exciting to see the confidence of a person grow after they work on one of the cars,’’ says Syed Haque, a senior mechanical engineering major and president of Binghamton’s chapter of SAE. “They come in and say things like ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can be of any help. I don’t know much about cars.’ And after a semester you see them attempting all sorts of projects with their vehicle.”

Last spring, the SAE was holding a fundraiser. Anyone with a driver’s license could test drive the Baja. One driver was putting the vehicle through its paces when the steering column broke. The fundraiser had just begun. No vehicle, no fundraiser. The students needed a solution fast.

“We immediately jumped on repairing it, as we were only an hour into our five-hour event,’’ Haque says.

As students worked on the vehicle in the middle of a University parking lot, surrounded by peers and parents, they discovered a design flaw had caused the breakdown. “We felt the pressure that day,’’ Haque says, adding that it took about an hour to make the repair.

David Pavlick, a mechanical engineering lecturer and faculty advisor, has one word for this kind of experience: “Priceless.’’

“The hands-on experience gets them working with a lot of the materials that they will eventually design with,’’ Pavlick says. “This will allow them to make better decisions and have much better design skills. This makes them much more valuable to a design team or company.’’

You hear the roar of the engines around you ... There is so much adrenaline; it’s a very ‘Bang! Bang!’ atmosphere.

Jordan Billet

The students took the Baja car to Peoria, Ill., this summer for the SAE Collegiate Design Series competition. Jordan Billet ’16, MS ’17, describes what it’s like to drive it:

“There are 100 cars on the track at a time, wheel-to-wheel, and there are no restrictions on passing. You’re in a full roll cage, and they expect these cars to roll and break down. You hear the roar of the engines around you. There are a lot of people and it’s really dusty, so visibility isn’t good.

“There is so much adrenaline; it’s a very ‘Bang! Bang!’ atmosphere,” Billet says.

The Baja car can reach about 30 mph. But his fear is not for personal safety; it’s about breaking something that the team produced. “You don’t want to disappoint a group of people,” says Billet, an algorithm engineer for General Motors.

But, as the Baja car proved, if it breaks, fixing it is just another learning experience.

“I love to take apart anything mechanical just to see how it works,’’ says junior Jacob Honsinger, a mechanical engineering major. And putting a car together has taught him a new lesson: “Great designs and products take a complete team effort.”

Posted in: In the World