McKenna Poe presenting with her team. Clay Knight is in the foreground.

McKenna Poe presenting with her team. Clay Knight is in the foreground.

Author’s note: Full disclosure — I taught at the Louisville Collegiate School for six years, during which time Tracie Catlett was my colleague.

Inside the Poe Companies’ River Road show room, 13 sophomores, juniors and seniors from Louisville Collegiate School tell mega developer Steve Poe how to solve his social media problems. Earlier in the year, they told Mike Mays, president of Heine Brothers, how to start an incentive program, gave president Sean O’Leary at Edj Analytics advice about fantasy football leagues, and pitched creative pieces to Highland Cleaner’s CEO Michael Jones.

Currently they meet five days a week, for 45 minutes a day. This isn’t a club. It’s a class: “Fieldwork Immersion: Consulting, Analytics, & Strategic Problem Solving.” It’s a semester-long class that can be taken more than once. And soon it’s going to be a mandatory part of the curriculum.

The course was created by Tracie Catlett, the assistant head of school for Academic Affairs, who is in her eighth year of teaching at Collegiate. This is the only class she teaches now after several promotions.

According to the course description:

This unique, experiential opportunity provides students with authentic fieldwork that will develop creative problem solving skills necessary for life. The work will be directly assigned by local businesses government, and non-profit organizations. Students will work in project teams to solve business and community problems presented by local CEOs, government officials, small business owners, and community leaders. Using the design thinking model, students will bring individual strengths (art, creative design, analytical skills, etc.) to their project team to ultimately propose and present a solution directly to the business/organization. The business/organization leader will assess each team’s solution and will provide each team with authentic feedback.

So these kids are solving problems. Or, at least trying to solve problems.

When you talk to employers hiring young people these days, you often hear they lack problem-solving skills, initiative and poise. While that is painting with a large brush, this class is certainly set up to attack all those negative perceptions.

And for the most part, the four presentations were professional and thoughtful with creative solutions.

The students had been asked to create a “12-month plan of social media content for the River Park community with the goal to achieve an average audience engagement of 750.”

When analyzing the social media Poe has put together for the new Waterside at RiverPark Place apartment community, senior and team leader McKenna Poe said the social media lacked a “cohesiveness of brand” and that the company could use Facebook to “inject some personality” into their engagement with potential clients. The company doesn’t use YouTube or Instagram yet, and her team added that to RiverPark Place’s media plan — including a starter YouTube video and a Dropbox folder full of picture ideas.

They also set up a physical wall calendar with tasks and holidays and special days marked so it would be easier to plan ahead for social media posts.

All of the teams had great ideas. This was the tightest team — it also included Diana Smith and Clay Knight. And McKenna is a chip off the Poe block. (Yes, she’s his daughter).

Catlett wrote this in an email:

In the Fieldwork Immersion class the students enjoy the autonomy and freedom to think and solve problems creatively. They also enjoy working with businesses and people outside the typical school setting. One challenge that the students face from time to time in this project-based class is the art of navigating the waters of diverse personalities and various levels of work ethic. Collaboration and communication are crucial life skills that the students are developing and fine tuning each day in our class.

Students answered questions from the Poe Cos. team. Nicki Sibley, director of sales and marketing, asked if she could manage several Instagram accounts on a single device. (Yes.)

Collegiate students listening to Poe give feedback.

Collegiate students listening to Poe give feedback.

Several teams critiqued Poe’s overuse of hashtags on social media. The Collegiate kids say current trends dictate no more than two per post.

At the end of the four presentations, the Poe team offered general feedback. Steve Poe encouraged the students to make eye contact. He also told them to “build on your strengths.” Typically (I speak from experience) during group projects, students are encouraged to have everybody do a little bit of everything. And that came across in the presentations. Every member of every team spoke. That’s just not how it works in the business world where projects are tackled by a bunch of people concentrating on specialties.

That’s true of presentations, too. Students are encouraged to share the limelight, presumably so they all get a taste of what it’s like to speak in public. But in the business world, it is rare that more than one person speaks during a presentation. The speaker is typically the most charismatic member of the team and is scripted and rehearsed.

A member of the Poe team urged them to go back over the presentations. He said he saw a lot of egregious misspellings and typos, and that lack of attention to detail can make or break a presentation. He said there were several misspellings of “Waterside at RiverPark Place” and that those kinds of mistakes — misrepresenting the client’s brand — are the worst you can make.

A lot of the suggestions the students made, however, were taken to heart. Poe said the company should add YouTube and Instagram to its social media channels. There were several events the students suggested that Waterside may adopt, including a pumpkin carving event, a March Madness bracket challenge and shuttles to Waterfront Wednesday concerts.

The public spaces of the buildings have TV monitors that broadcast events and news to the residents. Students suggested they should also broadcast information from the company’s social media channels.

Starting next year, all Collegiate juniors will be required to take this class for one quarter as part of an existing “Life Skills” program. The semester-long course likely will remain available.