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Competing For An Education

(See also: Serious Fun)

How do you teach college students, brimming with textbook knowledge, how to get things done in the real world?

Apply pressure.

Confront them with impossible deadlines and bare-bones budgets. Pair them with co-workers who have strong opinions and strong personalities. Assign them a number of daunting tasks that must be undertaken simultaneously. Toss in some intense competition. And make them explain their work to people who have no patience for jargon or hot air.

This is usually referred to as “on-the-job training,” but some students get it sooner. They take on the same kind of challenges they’ll face in their first jobs by entering intercollegiate competitions that pit them against teams of students from around the nation and beyond.

The contests are sponsored and judged by professionals in the field ? also known as potential employers.

Preparing for these events can take months and consumes hours of precious free time. But winning brings rewards: Top finishers often write their own tickets in job interviews.

And nobody loses. The lessons last a lifetime.

Perseverance and problem-solving
For a lesson in perseverance, look to the College’s food product development team.

After smelling success for the past four years, the team finally had a double helping. After four years as finalists, in 2001 these food science students took the top prize in a competition sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists.

They won by creating Handicotti, a hand-held pasta product filled with ricotta cheese and a tomato sauce chunked with sausage and vegetables.

Also in 2001, a product that had earned the College?s team a second-place finish in the previous year?s IFT contest ? a cereal bar named Chomp ? won first prize in a NASA contest for foods designed for space travel.

The IFT judges were impressed not only by Handicotti?s taste, texture and eye appeal, but also by the team?s approach to problem solving.

We it clear in our presentation that we had to solve a lot of problems. The judges liked hearing about our learning process.”

That learning process took them through a cycle of brainstorming, research and reformulation as they evaluated cost, shelf-life, food safety, nutrition, manufacturing, packaging, marketing, and, of course, consumer acceptance.

“Initially the sauce and ricotta were mixed together,” explains Hassan. “But our focus group wanted more cheese. So we changed the whole process, going to a co-extrusion process where we could have a layer of cheese and a layer of sauce.”

They also balanced moisture content in the cheese, sauce and pasta so colors wouldn?t run together, and they switched to a wrapping that worked better in the microwave.

Some of the best lessons learned weren?t about food, says Laura Lebak, a veteran team member. “We improved our people skills ? things like teamwork and conflict resolution. We also learned about creativity, marketing and finance.

And the learning continues. Several firms have expressed interest in taking the product to market, so team members are getting a crash course in patents and licensing.

Will Handicotti show up at your supermarket? Stay tuned.

You’ve got two minutes
It took more than knowledge of cows to earn the UW-Madison dairy judging teams a showcase full of trophies. Also needed: the ability to talk about cows, expertly, concisely, with no notes and very little rehearsal.

Winning a judging contest isn?t just a matter of correctly “placing” cows ? ranking them in order of overall quality. One-third of all possible points is awarded for a part called “reasons,” where you get two minutes to explain to a breed judge why you ranked the cows as you did.

“What we do is similar to what a lawyer does. We have to learn to defend a case,” explains Kristin Barlass, who placed fifth in reasons among 92 contestants at the national collegiate judging contest at World Dairy Expo in Madison.

“I have to plan how I?m going to defend my placing, then I have to go in there and do it without notes,” adds Barlass, a senior majoring in dairy science.

There?s plenty to talk about. Contestants spend all morning in the arena scrutinizing 12 classes, four cows per class. There are 24 ways to rank a class of four cows, but only one of them is correct. So contestants have a choice of 12 right answers and 276 wrong ones.

Judges don?t just want to hear the right reasons; they want to hear them explained clearly. Grammar counts. So do eye contact and brevity.

Badger teams practice relentlessly. They study hundreds of cows and spend countless hours honing speaking skills in front of two tough judges: team coach and dairy outreach specialist Ted Halbach and emeritus dairy scientist Dave Dickson (both former national collegiate judging champions).

Practice pays. The UW-Madison has a reputation as the team to beat in collegiate dairy judging ? particularly in the reasons competition. And the skills transfer readily to other settings.

“My interviewing skills are much better,” says Barlass. “The skills I use to defend my placings are the same skills I use in an interview: I formulate answers to questions and present them in a logical pattern.”

Keeping it simple
While dairy science students were polishing their communication skills, communication students were delving into emerging dairy technologies.

They were gearing up for competition sponsored by the National AgriMarketing Association, in which teams spend the school year developing a marketing plan for an agricultural product.

The most nerve-wracking part comes at the end, a 20-minute presentation in front of people who make their living giving presentations. “In a professional setting you have to step things up a notch,” says team member Leah Kaehler, an agricultural and applied economics major. “You?re competing against people from across the country, and you?re doing it in front of professionals in the industry in which you hope to find a job.”

But the most crucial step comes at the beginning: picking the right product. Over the years Badger teams have marketed everything from sexed semen to robotic milkers. In recent years they?ve picked some complex technologies. But they”d never picked one quite as intricate as their 2001 entry: a protein, extracted from the milk of genetically engineered cows, that curtails severe bleeding and therefore has potential uses in human medicine.

Sound complicated? The judges agreed.

“We spent most of our 20 minutes explaining to the judges what we were talking about,” recalls Kaehler. “There wasn?t much time left to talk about marketing ? which is the fun stuff.”

They didn?t make it through the first round ? unusual for a school that has finished among the top four teams five times in the past 10 years and won the contest in 1996.

“They were disappointed, but it was good experience in explaining biotechnology,” says Tom Schomisch, a life sciences communication professor who advises the team.

“Every year is an opportunity to showcase your talents,” points out Kaehler. “It?s the best free advertising.”

She ought to know. Early in her senior year she received an attractive job offer from an employer who had seen her team?s marketing presentation.

Building a team to build a tractor
It?s hard to ignore the product development efforts of one group of College students ? especially if you?re within earshot during the test phase.

This team, student members of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers, spends the school year designing and building a quarter-scale tractor for use in tractor pulls.

It takes more than heft and horsepower to win this event. Judges pay as much attention to how the tractor would perform as a product ? for example, how easy it would be to manufacture and service and its likely profitability ? as they do to how it performs on the test track.

You can plot the phases in this project on a campus map. The team begins the school year in the Agricultural Engineering building, brainstorming and sketching. In early winter they move to the College of Engineering?s computer-aided design lab. Next they move west, to the Agricultural Engineering Laboratory, to begin fabrication. As winter eases up, they roll out to a test track at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station.

It takes careful delegation. The 2001 team had a team leader, two design leaders, two business managers, a junior team leader, a webmaster and a merchandiser (to market official “Badger Pulling” apparel).

It also takes a willingness to learn some new talents.

“Like fundraising,” recalls Jon Frey, team leader for 2001. “That was the first thing on the list in the fall. Time management was another big one.”

And probably most critical for any team leader: maintaining momentum.

“You have to be three times as motivated as anyone else to have it rub off. If you?re walking around acting tired, or bored, the people around you are going to be tired or bored,” says Frey.