When Barbara Surran worked in human resources, she saw a pattern in the college students she was recruiting: lack of experience. Many recruits had "book smarts, but not practical application" in business, she said.
Now Surran is an adjunct instructor in Howard Community College's business program. With the support of the Business & Computer Systems Division, she has made the school's Principles of Marketing course a hands-on exercise for entry-level business students.
"What they walk away with is experiential learning," said Surran, a graduate of HCC.
Earlier this week, 30 business students presented marketing plans for the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department. Four judges, including two from the fire department, named "Entourage Marketing" the winning project.
Six teams began working on their marketing plans in January -- about two weeks after the class began. When Surran covered information from their textbook, she asked students how they would apply those concepts to their plan.
Emileigh Crown, 19, a sophomore studying culinary management, was a member of the winning team. "The information that was given to us, we put it to use right away instead of reading a book and taking a test," she said.
Chief Lars Leaf and board of directors member Carolyn Klein, both from the Ellicott City volunteer fire department, visited Surran's class early in the semester. Students asked them about the culture of volunteer firefighting and their goals for the marketing plan.
The concept of teaming Surran's class with firefighters began last year. The Savage fire department was looking for students to help with a marketing plan and they contacted the college. An Ellicott City fire department volunteer saw the final presentations and asked if Surran would do the project again. She agreed.
"It becomes this real win-win situation," Surran said. "It was hands-on and just gave them [students] a richer experience."
Crown, who has family members in a volunteer fire department, said "working with a nonprofit organization lets you be a little more creative" about the ideas the group could come up with.
Most of this year's class visited one of the two Ellicott City fire stations. "This project was being able to take their immediate knowledge and put it into action for a client," Surran said. "And in that process, they learned how to work in a team."
HCC attracts a combination of recent high school graduates and adult learners. Surran said that the wide range of ages is helpful in a project like the marketing plan. "What makes it great is everybody has such a vast background," she said.
Groups made their final presentations Monday in the large dining room in HCC's new Rouse Company Foundation Student Services Hall. Each team presented their ideas to the four judges by projecting PowerPoint slides on a large screen.
A key component of Entourage's winning marketing plan was building a relationship with senior citizens in Howard County. When Crown and her teammates Deepaben Prajapati, Jaclyn Mays and Yana Shamp contacted local assisted living centers about their proposals, "They seemed really excited to have a volunteer fire department come in and talk to their residents," Crown said.
Said Leaf: "Howard County doesn't have a program for that [senior residences]. I would like to be the first to be able to do something like that, to start a program and kind of be a model for the rest of the county."
The last group to present was The Reach Corporation. The team focused on using technology to teach the community about the fire department.
Team member Andrew Bell, a sophomore majoring in business, suggested that the fire department use the Internet as "outreach to people my age" to teach young adults "how important you are. ... It's normal, everyday people that save lives."
After each group finished its 10-minute presentation and answered questions, the judges went into the hallway to deliberate.
Judge Mary Beth Furst, a business professor at HCC, said there were "some really good parts of every one of them."
But the judges looked at which plan was the best fit for the culture of a fire department. Would volunteer firefighters rather participate in a car show or a book fair? Would they feel more comfortable raising funds at a black-tie gala or a community picnic?
LeAnn Young, International Product Marketing Manager for a Columbia software development company, was the fourth judge.
"Every group presented ideas that were implementable," she said to the students. She said that the winning plan "addresses more ... of the community needs and the marketing principles," and had the most marketing elements backed by research.
Surran said that the judges' choice would not affect students' grades. Choosing a winning project "was to help them learn what is competition about in the real world and business is competition."
Leaf plans to go to the fire department's board of directors with some of the ideas the students proposed. "I was very impressed," he said. "I think the class did really well."
"It was enjoyable to watch them grow," Surran said. "From the first day of class -- not knowing much about marketing -- to see their growth and their process to where they ended up ... was just phenomenal."
Said Crown: "I've learned a lot. ... How to market myself, how to interview. When I own my own business, it will help out a lot."