New USC Marshall Courses Provide Students Real-World Global Experience

A group of students exploring an Indonesian plastic project.
A group of students exploring an Indonesian plastic project.

Through six unique, multi-year projects, Professor Sriram Dasu and his students will identify large-scale solutions that can be used by tens of thousands of businesses throughout the world, with a focus on Africa and Southeast Asia.

Dasu and his students are stepping out of the classroom and into the field. They have a mission to create highly scalable data solutions for micro and small businesses across the globe through a new hands-on project-based course (BUAD 493 Global Applied Honors Research Seminar) that addresses global environmental issues and the problems facing micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs). The goal of the course is to support sustainability and enable inclusive economic growth.

MSMEs are the backbone of many emerging economies, employing 60% of the workforce. Despite that, these enterprises often don’t have access to the information and technology needed to make critical business decisions. While individually, they are tiny, collectively they are numerous. This suggests there are categories of problems with solutions that can be widely deployed.

By partnering with larger organizations that work with hundreds of small businesses, Dasu and his students are able to connect with enterprises operating in the most rural parts of the world. “What we are doing is working with larger organizations that have access to many small enterprises. This allows us to learn about their real problems and develop solutions that can be made available to micro and small businesses globally,” said Dasu.

For example, Dasu partners with Gunugu Sewu, Pan Brothers, OK OCE, and Pearl Dairy for access to microbusinesses in Indonesia and Uganda so students are able to help them identify, develop, and deploy solutions. “How can we reduce waste and decrease emissions in the garment supply chain without increasing the burden on businesses? How can we leverage analytics to increase individual incomes of small holder farmers while promoting environmentally friendly practices? How can we help small enterprises improve product positioning? These are the problems we are working on,” said Dasu.

The goals of the course are laudable:

  • Create sustainable growth for smallholder farmers
  • Identify business practices, education, and analytic tools for MSMEs
  • Identify approaches to reduce emissions and garment waste during and after production
  • Identify solutions to reducing plastic pollution

Students in Dasu’s class have the opportunity to apply their knowledge with real people and in real situations. For some students, it’s one of the best experiences they’ve had at Marshall.

“It is extremely special to learn through methods that allow you to truly and effectively help others as well,” said Ben Lichtenstein, a Marshall student. “Not only were we engaged in consistent economic problem solving during the trip, but we were also immersed in a magnificent and welcoming culture. I couldn’t believe at times that we were the first foreign nationals to visit some of the villages, especially given how welcoming and eager everyone was to see us and teach us their language, culture, and passions.”

The course provides students the unique opportunity to work on the ground. Ultimately, Dasu hopes to extend the time students are able to spend in these countries and to increase opportunities for more students to assist in these projects.

“This is a profound and unique opportunity for both undergraduates and the businesses we are working with,” added Dasu. “For the students, they are gaining real-world experience and can apply these skills to any future endeavor. For the businesses, they gain access to solutions that would otherwise be out of reach, improving the outcomes of businesses across the globe. Expanding the time students spend on the ground and increasing enrollment will help us reach solutions that much quicker.”

Dasu hopes students will take advantage of his hands-on course and others like it as Marshall strives to provide future leaders with practical experience that may help them change the world.

More about the six course projects

Sustainable inclusive growth for smallholder farmers (South Sumtra): There is potential for farmers to increase their income and employ sustainable farming techniques. The goal is to leverage analytics to help farmers improve yields while engaging in sustainable farming, and also to assist farmers in their short- and long-term financial planning. Students will also explore the development of image recognition tools that can grade the quality of produce.

Growth of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) (East Java): MSME growth can reduce inequality and contribute to economic growth. In this project, students will study the needs of a set of MSMEs with the goal of identifying systematic impediments to growth. They will also identify business practices, education, and analytic tools that can support these organizations.

Growth of Medium Enterprises (Indonesia): In this project, students will specifically focus on medium enterprises. They will use analytic tools to form marketing strategies that target investment procurement.

Inclusive growth for smallholder dairy farmers (Uganda and Kenya): Dairy farmers can substantially increase their income by improving their farming practices. These improvements require either investment or alternative approaches. This project will allow students to propose new practices to farmers and assist in the valuation of investment opportunities.

Greening of the garment supply chain: Garment manufacturing is one of the largest carbon emitting industries in the world. The garment industry also contributes to environmental harm through discarded garments. In this project, students will study approaches to greening the Pan Brothers garment business, while also identifying direct links between business decisions and environmental impact.

Reducing plastic pollution: Less than 10% of the plastics produced each year are recycled. Of the 90% that are discarded, a significant percentage is not captured by waste management systems. In this project, students will develop maps to track the flow of plastics in Indonesia and also explore opportunities for upcycling plastic waste.

BY Ann Newton