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Course Spotlight: Foundations of Business, First-Year Experiences at PCOB

Students from Foundations of Business at a September team-building event on the Drillfield. Photo by Andy Santos for Virginia Tech.
Students from Foundations of Business at a September team-building event on the Drillfield. Photo by Andy Santos for Virginia Tech.

When teaching his First-Year Experiences course for Pamplin students, Ron Poff has a few key lessons from his career that he wants to share with students as early as possible in their education. 

“Part of what we try to teach in this course is problem solving,” said Poff. “In industry, quite honestly, most people run away from problems but we really want our business students to embrace that challenge and have the tools and confidence that they can solve it.”

Poff started at Virginia Tech as an adjunct instructor in 2017 and transitioned to full-time teaching in 2019. This is the sixth fall he’s taught Foundations of Business (MGT 1104) to Pamplin’s transfer and first-year students.

The course is built around team-learning projects, getting students to work together to either solve a local problem (like increasing Blacksburg Transit ridership) or run a manufacturing company with business simulation software. 

“For a First-Year Experiences class, I think it’s important to realize our students are exploring, they’re discovering,” said Poff. “They don’t know what they don’t know and the best way to figure that out is to experience it.”

“Experiential learning has to be the basis for our business courses,” he added. “It gives students a chance to roll up their sleeves and practice by doing.” 

During the first week of class, students are placed in learning teams of about five people.

At the center of the course is business simulation software, called CAPSIM, that’s been used at more than a thousand universities and companies. By the end of the year, the students have completed four rounds with the software, each the equivalent of a sales year. 

The teams compete with each other with the winner determined by their company’s top-line revenue, profit, stock price, and customer satisfaction - all provided in real time by the software.

“The competition makes it fun. At first the ambiguity of running a company makes them nervous but that uncertainty drives initiative,” said Poff. “They fail and they learn from it.”

The software also allows Poff to reinforce important lessons he learned during his military service and 30 years of working in the private sector in supply chain management and sales and marketing. While a student at Radford University, Poff was recalled to active duty in the U.S. Navy to serve in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. 

“Many times there is ambiguity and uncertainty, whether it’s from the economy or your customers,” said Poff. “But you can’t sit around and wait and be paralized by analysis. You have to make decisions and those decisions need to be based on as much knowledge and intelligence you can make from the marketplace and then move forward.”

“A big part of this course is pushing students to make decisions,” he added. “It may not always be the right decision but no decision is a poor decision.”

The course also provides an opportunity for Pamplin students to explore different disciplines within the college. The majority of those students arrive as business undecided majors and the team-based exercises help them make the decision on where to focus their studies, Poff said.

“I had never taken a business class before and I found this course really valuable because we worked within major that’s taught at Pamplin,” said Peyton Coleman, a first-year finance major from Amelia County.  “It helped me decide whether I wanted to stay with my major or add another one.”

Coleman also said the coaching from Poff on interviewing and how to present herself as a candidate helped her land a paid internship for next summer. 

The course - along with team building events with Venture Out - also provide students a chance to start building the social peer-group that will be important to their college experience and success after graduation. 

“When I took the course, the first group project was called the “Food Cart Project” where we had to come up with a product, create a business plan, figure out where and when we’re going to sell it, all while balancing our costs,” said Clay Guill, a senior management major and undergraduate teaching assistant for the course. “We spent a lot of time outside of class working on that project.”

Guill is from Camden, North Carolina, a small town near the Outer Banks. He was only the second person from his high school to attend Virginia Tech and didn’t have a ready group of people to connect with when he arrived on campus. His teammates from MGT 1104 filled that gap.

“When I got here I had to start from scratch meeting people,” he said. “And the six people on that team were the start of my social network at college. I still talk to them all the time.”