MIT Sloan School of Management launches USA Lab: Students to work with community groups to foster economic prosperity in rural regions


Cambridge, Mass., March 15, 2018––What are promising ways to improve economic opportunities for people living in small-town Michigan? What kinds of new food production businesses hold the most potential in rural Maine? To what extent will investment in high-quality childcare expand job options for lower-income workers in Iowa?

USA Lab: Bridging the American Divides, a new action-learning course at the MIT Sloan School of Management, aims to answer these questions while broadening and deepening students' understanding of America's economic, cultural, and social challenges. The project component allows students to gain hands-on experience exploring solutions that have the potential to improve conditions. USA Lab is available to MIT Sloan students and graduate students from across the broader MIT campus.

USA Lab was developed through a collaboration involving MIT Sloan's Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative, MIT Sloan's Action Learning program, and the MIT Mens et Manus America Initiative.

"We are at a critical moment where relentless hammering about what divides us has made threadbare the social fabric that has been long been America's strength," says Barbara Dyer, a Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan and Executive Director of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative. "This course shifts the focus. We explore community resilience and determination to achieve shared prosperity. With good quality work as a central theme, students will gain a textured understanding of an America divided yet poised to bridge the gap."

In the semester-long course, students are grappling with the historical and modern-day complexities of this country's challenges through readings, interviews, and discussion. For two weeks in late March, students will work on-site with local community groups-including economic development organizations, community finance institutions, and family foundations-on projects that address problems relevant to particular regions.

The projects are meant to be "co-learning opportunities," according to Urmi Samadar, MIT Sloan's Director of Action Learning. "We know from experience that this kind of engagement leads to effective learning and development on both sides," she says. "Technological innovation, digitization, and globalization are trends that are here to stay. Our goal is to understand what this means for rural America and possibly leverage the potential of these forces in promoting growth and development in the regions."

One group of MIT Sloan students, for instance, will work with the Ludington, MI-based Pennies from Heaven Foundation, a private family foundation focused on bridging the gap from poverty to self-sufficiency. The student team will assess barriers to workforce development in the area and investigate the feasibility of expanding critical services, such as local childcare and transportation options.

"We are thrilled to be working closely with MIT Sloan students on this important project," says Monica Schuyler, Executive Director of the Foundation. "In our county, an estimated 40% of the population struggles from paycheck-to-paycheck. As a foundation, our goal is to help our community members become more self-sufficient. When the students are here, we hope they will see the human side of our story and come away with an understanding of the many challenges that are involved in improving economic development and workforce training in a community. We are eager and excited for fresh new eyes on this issue."

The other host organizations and student projects include:

  • Coastal Enterprises, Inc .: At this Brunswick, ME-based community development financial institution, students will conduct a market demand analysis to identify food and beverage products manufactured from vegetables, meats, and grains that can be produced at scale in Maine and exported to buyers throughout the Northeast.

  • Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque , in partnership with two affiliate community foundations and an economic development organization: For this Iowa-based collaborative, students will analyze the business case for employer investment in childcare. 

  • Rural Development Initiatives , in collaboration with the Columbia Pacific Economic Development District (ColPac), and the Port of Garibaldi: The project involves working with organizations that are developing the seafood sector along the northern coast of Oregon to evaluate challenges such as cold storage for small commercial fishing operations and make suggestions for integrating new systems to enhance jobs and commercial viability in this sector.

USA Lab is one of 15 Action Learning Labs at MIT Sloan that enable students to translate classroom knowledge and theory into practical solutions for real organizations across the globe.  While project activities vary, they are united by common themes, including experiential, reflective, and peer learning; faculty mentoring; real-world problem solving; knowledge transfer; and, perhaps unique to MIT Sloan, a student team engagement intended to have a measurable business and/or social impact.

“These real-time management challenges bring the theory that students learn in the classroom to life,” says Samadar.

The MIT Sloan School of Management is where smart, independent leaders come together to solve problems, create new organizations, and improve the world.

The Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at the MIT Sloan School of Management seeks to discover, demonstrate, and disseminate practices that both measurably improve the quality of work and enhance long-term business value. The Initiative supports practice-driven research that illuminates factors that foster or hinder the creation of good-quality jobs, and it brings scholars, business leaders, policy makers, and students together in the spirit of inquiry and pursuit of knowledge.

The MIT Mens et Manus America Initiative is a non-partisan MIT initiative convenes research-informed lectures and discussions to explore major, long-term social, political, and economic issues in the U.S.