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Teaching business lessons through a paper clip

CMU students learn career skills trading a tiny object for products worth hundreds

Contact: Heather Smith

​​​​​​Students at Central Michigan University sat listening and waiting for their next assignment. What they didn't know then was that this would teach them lifelong business skills requiring them to find friends and strangers who would trade a possession for one of the most basic office supplies: a paper clip. ​

Students in instructor John Dunford's Essential Business Skills ​class were each presented with a paper clip. They were then tasked with trading the paper clip for other goods — whether a pen, lamp, video game or other item — and then trading the product they received for a new item until at least four exchanges were complete.

One student ended the assignment with a living room chair estimated to be worth $210 after negotiating trades with local businesses, including Gray's Furniture in downtown Mount Pleasant. Other trades included an upscale bike, game consoles and controllers, speakers, and even a $400 fire pit.

Throughout the assignment students were asked to use and reflect on the business skills they learned in class to help make their trades, including relationship-building, win-win negotiating, problem-solving and communication.

The results of the trades were astounding, but students — most of whom were freshmen — said the career lessons learned were invaluable.

Student receives award for greatest number of trades.

"I honestly didn't expect to get a big value item, but after trading for a wallet and speaker I realized I could actually do something with this project," said Brendan Flores, a freshman from Goodrich, Michigan.

The students said putting thought into the demand and market for items they chose to trade, good communication skills, and understanding their audience were all key to their success.

"It was amazing to find some people are willing to trade just by what you say. Being able to communicate your trading goal was really important," said Phil Bryant, a freshman from Detroit.

From inspiration to a lesson … and a boat

Dunford, a CMU alumnus who has been teaching in the College of Business Administration​​ for a little over one year, found inspiration in the story of a young man who — on his own — eventually traded a paper clip for a house. Dunford himself — who tried the challenge before creating the assignment — worked his way up from a paper clip to a small sailboat after only six trades.

"I wanted to give students a fun way to ap​ply what we are learning in class to the environment around them — to break out of their comfort zones and think through negotiations, similar to everyday situations they may face in the business world," Dunford said.

Dunford plans to have students take on the challenge again next semester.

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