by Dan Vermeer
This semester marks the 10-year anniversary of the EDGE Seminar course, one of the hallmarks of our Energy & Environment program here at Fuqua. After a decade of hosting conversations with some of industry’s most interesting speakers, I have learned a few things from both students and speakers about what makes for a meaningful and engaging learning experience.
1. Diversity enriches the dialogue.
One of my initial concerns in inviting speakers to campus revolved around the task of identifying speakers capable of delivering captivating insights on climate, energy, and sustainability with credibility. It’s easy to assume that the more senior an executive is, the more he or she will have to contribute. However, one of my biggest takeaways from the 120 (or so) speakers we have hosted to date is that compelling industry insights are not restricted to the C-suite.
In fact, some of our most interesting speakers have come from mid-career executives (many of them Fuqua alumni!) who are deep in the weeds of their business unit or function. These seasoned operators can often provide a “warts and all” account of their experiences, fostering a more genuine and thought-provoking dialogue. Similarly, making a deliberate effort to seek out diversity in speaker gender and racial/ethnic background has enabled us to bring a rich variety of perspectives to the classroom.
My takeaway: inviting speakers from a wide range of seniority levels, industries, and backgrounds has improved the overall quality of the conversations over the years.
2. Collective reflection is critical to the learning process.
In the first few years of the seminar, I devoted the entire 2-hour class to the speaker, starting with a formal presentation and followed by an extensive Q&A session. This format allowed us to go deep into dialogue with each speaker—but I felt like a crucial element was missing. After each seminar, students were eager to share their insights, yet there was no room for discussion before progressing to the next speaker.
After a couple of years, I decided to change the flow of the course. I shortened the speaker’s time to 90 minutes and introduced a 30-minute debrief session before each speaker. This has created space for student discussions on key takeaways and raised the energy level in class. Now, I ask students to talk in small groups about their perspectives on the previous speaker, and then I facilitate a larger class discussion on key points of agreement and disagreement, giving us all an opportunity to delve deeper into insights. An unexpected benefit of this approach is that the learning returns do not solely hinge on the quality of any given speaker on any given day. The debrief discussion allows us to tease out valuable themes and arguments beyond the speaker’s presentation itself.
3. Curating Q&A is an art.
While there were obviously disadvantages to holding class on Zoom during the pandemic, there was one feature of the virtual environment that I really liked: the “chat” function. During our fully-remote days, when both students and the speaker were online, I asked students to submit questions by typing them into the chat box, rather than raising their hands in real time. This gave me an opportunity to curate the discussion by choosing which questions to ask and in what order.
Now that we’re back in the classroom, I have found a way to replicate this practice. Following a speaker’s presentation, we take a 10-minute break, during which students write their questions, along with their names, on the classroom whiteboard. I am then able to organize and hand-pick questions from list, asking the student authors to restate them aloud to the speaker. This approach allows students to contribute, while enabling me to steer the conversation towards topics in a logical order, making for better classroom discussion.
4. Identifying themes as they emerge is a useful skill for students to learn.
A distinctive characteristic of the EDGE Seminar is its organic nature. Because the content is determined by speakers’ unique expertise and perspectives, rather than a set curriculum, it is often impossible to see in advance what key themes will emerge over the course of a semester. However, the final deliverable in the class is a “synthesis report” that asks the students to connect the dots on themes that emerge across several of the seminars. The ability to identify trends across diverse sources and articulate their implications is an essential executive skill—one that will serve students well in an increasingly complex market environment.
Making the most of the EDGE Seminar
Over the past decade, the EDGE Seminar has cemented itself as a cornerstone experience for students. The course now attracts a full roster of 75 students each semester, and many students cite it as a highlight of their Fuqua coursework.
Importantly, the Seminar has also been a critical vehicle for us at EDGE to develop new relationships with leaders at the forefront of energy, climate, and sustainability work. I enjoy using the Seminar format to engage deeply with practitioners and stay abreast of key industry trends and leadership considerations myself. The Seminar also provides an entry point for executives who want to stay connected with EDGE and our students. Many of our past speakers have since recruited Fuqua students for internships or full-time jobs, engaged them on Fuqua Client Consulting Practicum projects, joined our EDGE Advisory Board, or connected with us for research or other projects. In that respect, the EDGE Seminar has deliver benefits both in the classroom and beyond.