Slicing, dicing and stirring their way through class, students at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln learned the processes of teamwork through a creative activity – salsa making. With an exercise uncommon to the classroom, students discovered firsthand the different aspects of teamwork in a memorable fashion.
Nebraska Business students in Managing Behavior in Organizations (MNGT 360) came to class with little prior knowledge of the activity in front of them – creating salsa from scratch. Students separated into teams of 4-6 members to compete for the best-made salsa. With an assortment of ingredients essential to salsa laid in front of them, groups were limited to a choice of six items. Each ingredient had a limited quantity, so once it was out – it was out for the rest of the contest. With a finite amount of supplies, students brainstormed creative substitutes when an ingredient ran out, such as mangoes in lieu of tomatoes.
Dr. Amy Bartels, assistant professor of management, who teaches the class, adapted the activity from an exercise found in the class textbook, Management Teaching Review. Wanting the students to have a greater understanding of team processes demonstrated in the management literature, she knew a hands-on experience was the best way to accomplish that.
“Cooking is a great way to simulate team dynamics and processes in the classroom because it requires so much decision-making, communication and conflict management – all key aspects of team processes and dynamics. Salsa is particularly well-suited for this type of activity because it can be made from a variety of ingredients and still taste great – plus it doesn’t require a lot of cooking tools not as accessible in the classroom,” said Bartels.
Intrigued by the activity, Kamran Araghi, freshman management major from Scottsdale, Arizona, was curious as to why they would be making salsa in a management class. After working through the activity and immediately learning about the management topics following, he realized the benefits of participating.
“I enjoyed that the activity was different than your everyday class. Instead of taking notes on a lecture over the topic, we did this activity. I believe I learned more from doing a hands-on exercise than being lectured on what we learned,” said Araghi. “It was awesome to apply the things we learn in class to a real-life example.”
Thrown for a loop during the middle of making their salsa, teams were given the opportunity to send a representative from their group to choose an additional ingredient. As a key decision point for teams, students had to decide within their group whether their salsa was good enough or consider taking the risk to add something, knowing it could make it better or possibly worse. The caveat being once representatives were up at the ingredient table, they could no longer talk to their teammates, forcing them to make the decision on their own if an ingredient was not available. Students took this obstacle in stride, discovering challenges they might face in their future careers.
Bartels believes students often look at teams and evaluate them without understanding the team processes connecting inputs and outputs, which are the key factors in determining what composes a great team.
“We discuss teamwork processes and taskwork processes in class. Research suggests engaging in interactions and observing others engaging in such behaviors can enhance the student’s learning, so I wanted to give them a chance to engage in a project that has them practice team processes to enhance their knowledge in this area,” said Bartels. “As students enter the workplace, the greater understanding they have of teams and how teams can be most effective, the easier it will be for them to adapt to a team-based structure in their organization.”