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The hands-on learning of case competitions appeals to business students.Getty Images

The Globe's biweekly business-school news roundup.

In a third-floor conference room, four undergraduate business students and their coach at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown ignore the occasional pounding of jackhammers on the roof above them.

Their concentration is admirable – and understandable – as they train for an upcoming business case competition. With victory comes bragging rights for the school, hands-on learning for students and, for some, even a job offer.

At UPEI, recent participation (and success) in case competitions has raised the profile of a business school that offers a four-year undergraduate business administration degree and an executive MBA program. With the exception of 2013-14, the school has scored top-three finishes in at least four competitions a year over the past five years.

Last month, a UPEI team came second among nine teams from Canada and the United States at the Scotiabank Ethics in Action Case Competition at Dalhousie University, continuing a pattern in which the Charlottetown students placed either first or second in the past four years.

This week, UPEI students expect to learn if they have made the cut for the Network of International Business Schools Case Competition to be held in Finland in February. A UPEI team placed second at NIBS in each of the past two years.

The students' success helps the school make its pitch to a growing contingent of international students, who now account for between 35 and 40 per cent of the annual class, according to UPEI business school dean Juergen Krause. "It gives us some international flair and also gives us confirmation of the quality of education," he says.

The school's success has caught the attention of local students, too.

Charlottetown native Carter MacDonald says one reason to study business at UPEI was "the prestige and the reputation I knew that UPEI business case teams had." At the recent ethics competition, Mr. MacDonald and his teammates had 10 days to prepare a case but, once there, all teams had only three hours to solve a case whose problem was not revealed in advance.

"It definitely challenges me to make decisions very confidently in a time crunch," he says.

The hands-on learning of case competitions appeals to fourth-year business student Hannah Dawson, also on the second-place team at the Scotiabank event. "The point of business school education is to be able to apply it in a real-world business setting and case competitions give you a chance to do that before you are in the work force."

Earlier this fall, second-year business student Shanna Blacquiere had her first experience at a meet when teams from UPEI placed first and third at the Atlantic Schools of Business case competition. "It was really fun," she recalls, acknowledging the pressure on students to present "reasonable and valid" solutions under deadline.

Her teammate, Krista Lee Oliver, say the experience also helps students to hone presentation skills valued by employers. In a competition, students have to defend their recommendations to a panel of judges usually recruited from industry. "You don't have time to practise," she says of the on-the-spot grilling from prospective employers. "You have to go out and do it."

Mary Whitrow, a UPEI business graduate hired in 2014 to fill a newly-created position of case competition co-ordinator, sees measurable growth in students as they train and compete over the course of an academic year. She says they gain confidence in making presentations, practising critical thinking skills and developing knowledge of business.

"It makes a different student in the end," she says of case competitions. "The power of it is the experience."

How to listen to students

Five months into a two-year stint as acting dean of the Odette School of Business at the University of Windsor, Mitchell Fields adopted a simple strategy to hear from students. He invited them to join him where they hang out at the campus coffee shop. Two students showed up for the first "meet the dean" event but six showed up at his second session last month . Over time, he hopes to attract 15-20 students for informal get-togethers where they can raise a question, concern or, as he puts it, "to shoot the breeze."

A professor of business administration at Odette since 1985 and the first executive director of the school's Centre for Executive and Professional Education, Dr. Fields sees benefit in leaving his office to meet students and faculty.

"If you are sitting in your office you are being reactive; you are waiting for problems to find you," he says. "Going where value is created is a more pro-active strategy so you get out in front of things."

Early in 2017, he says the school plans to introduce an "executive for a day" program for undergraduate business students in second, third and fourth year to job-shadow a leader in the private and public sectors.

"Everyone we have asked [to be mentors] is pretty excited," he says, with a first batch of 20 students expected to be selected in early January. Over time, he hopes to give 50 students a semester a chance to meet directly with business and non-profit leaders.

The university is slated to select a permanent dean by July of 2018.

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Contact Jennifer at jlewington@bell.net

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