Walk into Robert Kuchta’s office, and the first thing you’ll notice is a bookshelf filled with bins and bins of Legos. The opposite bookshelves hold yet more toys.
Like most professors, Kuchta also has plenty of books, but as a professor of practice, he doesn’t do traditional academic research. Instead, he focuses on teaching and sharing his industry experience with students.
Kuchta spent 30 years working for AT&T, where he started at Bell Labs in research and development before moving into public relations and marketing. He has been teaching in the departments of marketing and management at Lehigh since 1999.
“I have much experience stumbling through and making mistakes,” he explains. “When I share these lessons in class, students understand that I’m talking from the specifics of what I’ve done.”
Kuchta’s favorite aspect of teaching is the challenge of explaining class material to students in a way that is not only easy to understand, but also fun.
“It makes learning easier,” he says. “If you ask preschoolers how many of them can dance or sing, every hand goes up. Ask college students, and few, if any, hands go up. What happened from preschool where you could do anything to today? I want to get you back to ‘We can do it.’ I try to find the common ground so everyone can understand what we’re talking about, learn the principles and, in the end, enjoy it.”
That’s where the Legos come in. Kuchta incorporates exercises where student teams challenge each other in his classes, for example, when he teaches marketing in Bus 001, the introductory course that all first-year students in the College of Business and Economics must take.
“The essence of marketing is making a product different,” he says. “So I give a container of play sand to student teams and give them 10 minutes to come up with ideas that differentiate the product.“
“So far, the record is 129 ways: we can treat it so it doesn’t stick, make it water-soluble, make it glow in the dark. That’s a cool way to stimulate students’ thinking. When we push them, they realize that 10 or 20 ideas aren’t enough.”
In addition to teaching management and marketing, Kuchta is the director of the business minor, a program designed to teach students in the university’s other colleges about the fundamentals of business.
“Even for students in the arts and sciences and engineering colleges, their career advancement will depend on their understanding of business. The business minor gives them that knowledge,” says Kuchta.
Students complete the minor with a game simulation where they compete to sell bicycles. They have to build a factory, price the bikes and figure out their marketing strategy.
“In the course of four semesters, they come to understand all these things about business,” says Kuchta. “We find that when students apply for jobs, the business minor becomes the dealmaker.”
In fact, preparing students to get jobs after graduation is another of Kuchta’s objectives. He uses his industry contacts to connect students to opportunities, and his door is always open to help students polish their resumes or prepare for interviews.
“There’s this kumbaya, if you will,” he says. “Lehigh’s strength is not just the learning in the classroom, but also the close relationships with the faculty and alumni. The Lehigh education has a lot of value beyond what you might find elsewhere.”