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Challenge accepted: In Penn’s Organizational Dynamics programs, students put their classroom lessons to work

Faced with both educational and professional challenges during the pandemic, these three students put their coursework into practice.

Pivoting to online classes to keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic introduced challenges—but also opportunities. Our innovative LPS community discovered new ways to put their curriculum to work.

One of the benefits of Penn’s Organizational Dynamics program is its small class size and personal, seminar-style discussions. Whether they are looking to change fields or advance in their careers, most Dynamics students are working professionals whose unique perspectives contribute to a vibrant, knowledgeable peer community. “One of the benefits of the program is those off-the-cuff, spontaneous conversations during breaks or in the hallway, where you could sit down and go a little bit more in-depth on challenges you share,” says Larry Hampton, a pharmaceutical industry leader who previously commuted from Michigan for coursework.

Larry and his peers may have missed the spontaneity and intimacy of their on-campus community when it became necessary to conduct courses remotely in spring 2020, but many found themselves putting their classroom learning into practice in unexpected ways this year. For example: prior to the pandemic, Larry had been exploring applications of a course titled Leading Emergence: Creating Adaptive Space in Response to Complex Challenges. “Adaptive space is about how we disrupt something, change it, turn it on its head. This mindset allowed me to approach my department’s auditing program in a way that completely disrupted it,” Larry explains. As a manager and team lead for Pfizer's quality operations, Larry observed the tremendous amount of time and space their auditing paperwork required, so he advocated for a pivot to digital processes. “We had some lessons to learn, but we worked out the problems with doing a digital audit—and that was at a time when we really did not have to,” he recalls. Transitioning to digital auditing turned out to be a prescient move: when it became necessary to shift to remote and digital work during the pandemic, Larry’s team was ready.

Nicole Washington, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, found herself leaning on lessons from a Perspectives on Organizational Dynamics course in the early days of the pandemic. Nicole’s role involves administrative and operational responsibilities in addition to clinical duties, and the rapidly evolving health crisis presented pressing challenges for both her patients and colleagues. “When I think about the competing values framework from the course, I remember there are 500 different ways to see one situation. That has been really helpful for me any time I’m presented with a dilemma at work,” she says. “With COVID-19, I have to be able to think about what patients and families need, and what healthcare workers need, and what we need to do operationally. I have needed to step out of my own way of thinking, and think about the many perspectives of each one of those groups in order to make meaningful and effective decisions.” Under the circumstances, she adds, “None of the decisions are really optimal, none of the options are great; but it has been very helpful to have a framework to utilize while making such difficult and complex decisions.”

For Halee Watel, adapting to the pandemic means trying to see into the future. As a program management professional with experience in management consulting in the healthcare industry and strategic initiatives, she recognizes the opportunity for COVID-19 to drive innovation. “Electronic Health Records in hospitals are incredibly cumbersome for care providers. With so much stress on our health systems, we have to make it easier on providers,” she reflects. Having studied the concept of design thinking in the Dynamics program, Halee feels prepared to tackle the problem. “Design thinking aims to give you a very deep understanding of the user,” Halee explains. “In my opinion, it’s the gold standard for product and process design methodology. By asking the right questions, we can understand the explicit needs of the user and uncover their implicit needs to prototype an exceptional solution.”

Learning research-based concepts such as these remains a valuable part of the program for these students, but each emphasized the importance of learning from peers as well Penn faculty and industry experts—and when the Organizational Dynamics program opted to conduct fall 2020 courses remotely as well, students looked for opportunities to connect. “The level of learning and insight is still the same, but you're employing new techniques to connect and build rapport in a virtual environment,” says Halee. She describes a coaching course where every student was asked to set an intention at the beginning of each class. Students shared how they were doing, what kind of energy they were bringing to the virtual classroom that day, and their focus for the session. “The level of sharing was incredibly deep and established strong emotional bonds even in the digital space. It was a very productive, fulfilling virtual environment,” Halee says. “I personally prefer to be in the classroom without all the distractions,” adds Nicole. “But I will say that many professors are really good at creating a supportive and interactive learning community, whether in-person or virtually, so the switch to learning online was pretty seamless. And it’s such a magnificent group of adult learners, so people are engaged.”

For commuters like Halee (tuning in from Texas) and Larry, the virtual semesters also offered a measure of flexibility. Larry used to choose courses based on what he could reasonably complete from Kalamazoo. Shifting to remote made the full roster available for him to complete his degree with courses selected for subject and applicability to his capstone. He also valued the ease of collaborating with busy classmates on group assignments. In one instance, he worked with a classmate in Nigeria and another in Philadelphia. The assignment was to come up with a pitch implementing concepts from his course on adaptive spaces. Minus the conflict of schedules and locations, there was still the challenge of agreeing on a mission and method. “We’re all doing a lot of different things in a lot of different places,” says Larry, “and we all had an idea on how and what needed to be done, but we also knew we needed to get everybody’s cooperation.”

The group’s idea, ultimately, was a very timely pitch for a diagnostic kit you could use from home to self-administer a COVID-19 test. “That’s the essence of what the program is,” says Larry. “We’re not looking at esoteric problems. We have real-world issues that we merge all these different talents to try to resolve.”

To see how other College of Liberal and Professional Studies programs have met the challenges of learning during the pandemic, read “Challenge accepted: In Penn’s Pre-Health Programs, aspiring health professionals build an inspiring community.”