Mohra Anderson, ESTEEM '23: Thoughts on the Importance of Experiential Learning in the ESTEEM Program

Author: Anderson, Mohra

Are You Ready For ThisAre You Ready For This

ESTEEM emphasizes the importance of learning by doing. On our first day of the program, we launched into groups, having never spoken with one another, to create and present a startup to judges over a two-day workshop. This was precisely what ESTEEM meant by their promise to implement experiential learning into a traditional classroom. While at the time, none of us knew what we were doing, we learned in three days the bones of what it takes to initially create and launch a startup company. This short but intensive three days gave us the backbone of what we were going to learn through our coursework over the next year.

But the ESTEEM program did not stop there – we scrambled through from-scratch Design Thinking Sprints, Everest Leadership Simulations, and a Bicycle Branding Marketing Challenge until the process started to make sense. Notre Dame’s most multidisciplinary master’s program directly supports students’ learning by requiring the action of their carefully curated and theoretical coursework. 

The ESTEEM program not only incorporates experiential learning directly into the class activities but requires students to enact a consulting project with a real company through its Capstone Project. This is beyond a simulation and features bona fide rewards and bona fide consequences – much like the experience one would get as an entry-level employee at a technical company or firm. This experience has been the most impactful. ESTEEM is acutely preparing its students to launch into the workforce by elevating specific skills required within a wide range of industries such as tech, healthcare, and engineering.

The capstone project, sprints, and simulations described above all funnel into the lens of product development and related areas, which was a skill I could not fathom possessing at the beginning of this program. These projects quite literally support ESTEEM’s promise of ‘learning by doing.’ Experiential learning makes things interesting and gives doses of reality that I believe are crucial to acquiring and owning the skills required to be successful in the real world. These doses of reality, however, can be delivered in a variety of ways other than hands-on projects. They can manifest through listening to others’ lived experiences, seeing companies in action, conversing with veterans of the industry, or networking. 

ESTEEM balances the projects with these other varieties of experiential learning by interspersing opportunities to meet, listen to, and network with previous students, executives, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Students have had the opportunity to attend networking events with Mandela Washington Fellows, ESTEEM alumni, CEOs and leaders of capstone sponsor companies, as well as IDEA Center Innovation Rally speakers and affiliated entrepreneurs. Through these connections within ESTEEM’s broad network, students are able to,

1. Discover career pathways and the next steps.

2. Grow relationships with successful innovators who will help all ESTEEM students in a heartbeat.

These opportunities allow students to grow their professional network and understand various career arcs. These events also push students to practice their networking skills, talking to important people in professional settings without formal meetings. STEM networking is sometimes rare within the business industry unless students are in the middle of a technology mecca. ESTEEM’s focus on events with technical, healthcare, and software device-related leaders instills confidence in the students so they can network in niche areas of business. 

These networking events and skill-building events do not simply simulate the real-world setting but provide facilitated (through the Notre Dame Network) opportunities for creating genuine connections with professionals in areas students are keen to enter. All of these events will culminate in a week of networking gatherings and speakers in Silicon Valley in March. The ESTEEM program takes its students to the fertile ground of the Bay Area of California, where they meet and listen to tech executives and learn about the business landscape. While Notre Dame, Indiana and the greater city of South Bend boast a top 15 entrepreneurial ecosystem that aids the creation of these ESTEEM events, traveling to one of the premier tech innovation locations in the country brings ESTEEM’s experiential learning and networking process to the next tier.

ESTEEM students are also given a taste of this next level of networking when they travel to Chicago. This past January, students had the opportunity to visit Marmon Holdings’ innovation branch, MHub, IDEO, Google, and TastyTrade — sampling the emerging industries of design consulting, software development, and fintech. Each company gave the students a tour and presentation on the workings of their business. IDEO presented their work with Ford’s electric F-150 team, and an ESTEEM alumnus led a panel of Google software engineers who gave candid advice about their careers and experiences before and at the company. Lastly, TastyTrade hosted the students on their live trading broadcast for an exciting end to the trip. 

Ultimately, ESTEEM differentiates itself from other business programs with experiential learning components because of the reality of its Capstone Projects. This replaces the internship component of many other business-related graduate programs. Further, the program does not skimp on the incorporation of experiential learning projects within the classroom that emphasize talking to the community outside of the classroom. Lastly, the requirement of networking events, trips, and speakers gradually and effectively introduce students to the hidden strategy of being successful in STEM-related pockets of the business world. These experiences and how I feel I’ve grown through them and learned from them are what make me happy I chose the ESTEEM program over something else. Many students spend their time in the library, lab, or elsewhere working through theoretical applications or case studies of the material. ESTEEM has us out in the community, talking with startup leaders, thinking through physical processes, and learning from results that ensue from a simple conversation. Experiential learning, in any sort of program, is crucial to supporting a student’s understanding of the subject matter. Get outside, learn by doing, seeing, and discovering, and it will make so much more sense. ESTEEM commits to doing this with its students, and I can see firsthand the long-lasting benefits.