NEW HAVEN, Conn. – For one group of graduate business students at Yale, next month's lessons will take place on pineapple, banana and coffee plantations in Costa Rica.
Other Master of Business Administration students are checking out investment prospects in Tanzania and what's sizzling in Singapore.
Yale this year became the first major university to require its MBA students to study abroad. The Ivy League school also replaced finance and marketing courses that have been the mainstay of business education for 50 years with courses structured to mimic the way business managers operate.
"We are at the beginning of what over the next five years will be tremendous change in business education," said Joel M. Podolny, dean of Yale's School of Management.
The changes, implemented this fall, come after criticism in scholarly articles that MBA programs have failed to teach useful skills. Other business schools are implementing or considering similar plans.
Business schools increasingly compete for students and faculty as the number of MBA programs has soared. Universities are trying to differentiate themselves with special programs, such as a growing emphasis on ethics courses in the wake of corporate scandals.
"There is a trend to being responsive to the needs of the marketplace," said Arthur Kraft, chairman of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
Next fall, a new Stanford University curriculum will emphasize the skills a business manager needs and require students to have a global experience.
Yale's new curriculum aims to elevate the 30-year-old business program, its newest professional school, into the ranks of elite business schools such as Harvard, Wharton and others. Business Week ranked Yale 19th out of its top 30 MBA programs.
Mindful of the global economy, Yale and other business schools are placing more emphasis on studying abroad.
"I think it's something desired by the students and by the companies," said Douglas Viehland, executive director of the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs, a business education accreditation organization in Overland Park, Kan.
During the first two weeks of January, Yale students will travel to one of eight destinations around the world for intensive study. They will meet business, government and nonprofit leaders.
The group heading to Africa will visit day care centers to see how the AIDS epidemic is affecting the work force.
Paul Ip is among the students traveling to Costa Rica to check out the plantations and niche markets such as ecotourism as well as explore how globalization affects small countries.
"You can read a lot in books," Ip said. "It's definitely more instructive to be there in person to see what's going on."
The new curriculum includes courses structured around the organizational roles a manager must deal with to solve problems or make progress. There are courses on the employee, the investor, the customer and the competitor.
"No executive wakes up in the morning and thinks, 'I'm going to do finance today,' so it doesn't make sense for students to sit in a finance class and learn to crunch numbers absent of any content," Sharon Oster, an economics professor, said in a statement.
Students still learn the traditional finance and marketing skills, but from the perspective of the employee and others.
The customer class, for instance, weaves in not only the traditional focus on marketing but also accounting to determine the value of the relationship, psychology to understand how customers make choices and operations to ensure good service.
"The approach is so much more practical," said Hannah Grannemann, an MBA and drama student who is heading to Japan next month. "Nobody makes decisions in isolation. I'm learning a huge amount."