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As the local economy around University Centre Shrewsbury (UCS) reels from the one-two blow of historic floods in February, followed a month later by the lockdown, UCS’s Business Department has been practicing what they teach through an initiative called, “Make a Difference”.  The project allows students to gain valuable experience while also benefiting the local community. Since its launch, the students have embraced the opportunities.   

“We are always looking for ways in which we can align academics with the real world,” said Trina Roberts, Senior Lecturer, Business, and the UCS Year End Staff-Student Awards 2020 recipient for Teaching Excellence.  “The lockdown gave us the opportunity to challenge our students to use their skills, talents and enthusiasm this summer to help their community.  I am very impressed in how they have embraced the opportunities.” 

The Business Department relied on core business concepts in creating the new initiative. They accepted adversity and adapted to the circumstances thrust upon them, kept in mind the needs of their core audience, the students, and exploited the resources at their doorstep. To guide them in the selection process, the Business Department created a brief list of criteria to consider each short piece of work:  it would have to respond to a specific need in the community; be action-based; and, have a clear outcome.  

The students’ first project was to deliver a proposal to help reinvigorate Shrewsbury’s town centre post-lockdown. On a Zoom call, the Year One and Two students presented their ideas to members of the Shrewsbury Business Improvement Board, who are prominent local business owners, as well as UCS senior management.  After their presentation, the team fielded challenging questions from the Board. 

“It was quite nerve wrecking when presenting but I soon settled into it,” said Jamie Wood, a Business and Management student. “I really enjoyed presenting to real life business owners in Shrewsbury and hearing their helpful feedback on what I did well and what I could do to improve.”

Feedback from Board Members was positive, including comments such as “Innovative thinking”; “Opens up opportunities for working together in the future”; and, “Well-considered presentations with useful, practical ideas”.  In addition to the practical experience for the students, the project produced a concrete outcome with some of the student’s ideas being integrated into future BID plans.

The initiative quickly expanded with new projects added throughout the summer. In July, students presented their ideas on how to expand the visitor economy and business network in the town of Church Stretton, referred to locally as “Shropshire’s little Switzerland”.  The students presented their ideas to the town’s Mayor and Councillors gaining real world proposal writing and presentation skills. 

“Our educational offer is holistic, encompassing academics, work-placement and extra-curricular activities,” said Ross Frisby, Head of UCS’s Business Department. “These projects stretch the students into new skills, get them involved in the community, and offer a unique opportunity for the students to put in action what they learn in the classroom.” 

Business students also worked closely with event planners on Shrewsbury’s lockdown Drive-Ins. Three music and comedy events were held on the town’s showgrounds while guests socially distanced in their cars, with street food and drinks available to be safely delivered directly to the audience members in their car.  

"The Shropshire Drive-in has been a great success in getting people out and enjoying themselves once again,” said Beth Heath, Director of Shropshire Festivals.  “The UCS volunteers have been a total pleasure to work alongside and help to demonstrate what the future will look like when there is such enthusiastic and capable young people coming into the industry!”

“I had a great experience from this volunteering opportunity,” said Jordan Evans, a Sports Management student. “I took away new communication, time management and team working skills. I also formed new relationships and connections which will be beneficial for the future.”

In addition, local organisers of a celebration of the 19th century illustrator Randolph Caldecott invited students for their help in evaluating their events. The students were asked to produce reports on participation and satisfaction levels, as well as on the impact of the event, considering the value to the town, festival and stakeholders.  This project will continue through February 2021. 

“Not only do the organisations we work with get fresh ideas and solutions from our students,” said Roberts, “they also benefit from UCS’s academic expertise, as the Business faculty oversees the students’ work.” 

The Shropshire Chamber of Commerce Champion Awards 2020 offered yet another opportunity for the students to stretch their skill sets.  As UCS sponsored this year’s Entrepreneurial Award, business students were asked to evaluate the submissions, and choose the nominations and winner.  The students were asked to analyse the submissions and score the applicants using the Delphi technique, which is a group decision-making method. Once the four nominations were chosen, senior academics oversaw the student’s selection of the winner, Shoothill.   After learning of the acute shortage of PPE in the private care sector, Shoothill designed, built and launched a PPE online exchange portal to connect PPE suppliers with those on the frontline, including care services, home care providers and NHS Trusts.  The site, which was designed in seven days and offered free of charge, provided a critical service when it was most needed.  The award was presented in an online ceremony in July. 

The Make a Difference pilot has exceeded expectations, and the Business Department is now looking to use it as a model for further community engagement in the new school year.

 “We’ve been making long-lasting relationships throughout the community,” said Frisby. “We’re already discussing job placements and guest speakers, creating a symbiotic relationship between UCS and the community.”


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