There was a time when it was fairly simple to figure out which subjects would be taught at the “Finance School.” Today, the breadth of study at Wharton is staggering. Which less-traditional aspects of business have fresh relevance now? How does a fundamental course evolve over the decades? What are the secrets to some of the most popular courses? How do professors tailor their curricula to reflect current events and impactful trends? We asked Wharton faculty to pull back the curtain for an inside look at seven essential classes — plus a brand-new virtual offering this semester that couldn’t be more timely.

Building Leaders (and a Community)

Kicking off the MBA experience, this course introduces students to fundamental skills by letting them run their own company.

Illustration of students building a human pyramid.

Foundations of Teamwork and Leadership

Management professors Sigal Barsade, Adam Grant, Samir Nurmohamed, and Nancy Rothbard

Classroom Innovation
When professors Nancy Rothbard and Sigal Barsade set out to update this core course in 2009, they didn’t just refresh it — they reinvented it. What had been a traditional half-semester course became an intensive multi-day experience that immerses students in a simulation unique to Wharton right before their first term. “It was really innovative at the time, and it’s still cutting-edge in terms of the format and the way we go about it,” says Rothbard.

Much of the simulation experience, created in partnership with a Silicon Valley company, is a secret — in part, to keep the specifics a surprise for students. But this much can be said: Students team up to take control of an electric-car company, each choosing a senior-level role with sway over certain parts of the operation. They must work together to make key decisions and, along the way, are taught leadership and teamwork skills related to emotional intelligence, group decision-making, and conflict management that are essential to the Wharton curriculum. Throughout the simulation, students are shown how those skills impact both decision-making and their company’s bottom line. “All of our students ultimately are going to operate at some type of organization, and we want them to be prepared for two of the most basic processes that you have to have for that,” says Barsade. “Our framework for this course is built around those core skills and the fact that they are learnable. Sometimes, people have this mind-set that you’re either born a leader or you’re not. We deliberately break down leadership into a set of skills that you can develop.”

A Team Behind the Scenes
While the course’s four professors all teach their own sections, they collaborate in order to give every student the same Wharton welcome experience. “The four of us prep together every night before each class,” says Rothbard. “We all use the exact same content to ensure a unified and uniformly high-level experience for the first-year class.”

The Wharton “Wow” Factor
The uniqueness of Management 610, as it’s known, can’t be overstated. “There’s no other business school that has this type of course and simulation that has been customized for their students, to their curriculum, and with this intensity and scale,” says Rothbard. Over the years, the teaching team has kept the simulation fresh by incorporating student feedback, updating roles, tweaking tasks, and even adding self-driving cars to the mix.

The word “foundations” in the course title takes on special meaning as well, given that the class is the first taught to incoming MBAs in the pre-term. For many students, the two years that follow — and, with no exaggeration, their futures beyond Wharton — are shaped here. “This is the first opportunity that students have to work together as a team,” says Rothbard.

“There’s something about this immersive, intensive experience that I think socializes students into the idea of, ‘Wow, I’m at Wharton, and this is going to be different from my other educational experiences,’” says Barsade. “It creates a real sense of community from the start.”

Tackling Tomorrow’s Challenges Today

A new course introduces students to the groundbreaking potential of artificial intelligence and what it could mean for their careers.

AI, Data, and Society

Prasanna Tambe, associate professor of operations, information, and decisions

Exploring New Possibilities
Perhaps no other advancement has more potential to disrupt nearly every aspect of our lives than artificial intelligence. In this undergraduate course, started last year, professor Prasanna Tambe offers a critical look at the technology, both for its prospects to benefit society and its ability to pose new challenges.

While students get a feel for AI’s many applications — online product suggestions, screening job candidates, diagnosing health conditions, and more — Tambe balances these concepts with one of his most important considerations: how much students need to know about the technical considerations of AI versus its managerial and social implications. “We are graduating students who may not be building AI systems, but who will need to wrestle with the broader organizational implications of the technology,” he says. “So it is important for them to understand how AI works and what trade-offs it poses. Fundamentally, AI is a tool that aids in decision-making, and that’s really what business is all about.”

Complex Implications
Particularly helpful for students in their future endeavors is an understanding of the most prominent issues concerning AI today. “A big one,” Tambe says, “is bias — the idea that you roll out decision-making tools that end up working much better on data from some demographic groups than others.” That concern has arisen in areas like health care and human resources and even in the criminal justice system, where the technology has been used to predict how likely a defendant is to commit future crimes.

Another major issue is interpretability, or understanding why an AI system has made a certain decision. “Think about a doctor who’s making a diagnosis,” says Tambe. “Maybe the AI system is pushing them in a different direction, but if they can’t understand why the algorithm is making the recommendation, they aren’t going to want to use it.”

Despite those challenges, it’s likely that AI’s role in our decision-making will become even more important. “There’s lots of room for impact here,” says Tambe. “That’s why people at all levels of an organization need to understand AI and what it’s going to do in the future.” (For more on the applications of AI and its potential pitfalls, see  “The Perils of Data Analytics.”)

Not Your Grandpa’s Wharton Class

Neuroscience is expanding the scope of business education in the modern era.

Illustration of students examining a large brain.

Introduction to Brain Science for Business

Michael Platt, James S. Riepe University Professor, professor of marketing, professor of neuroscience, professor of psychology, Penn Integrates Knowledge professor

Practical Impact
Joseph Wharton probably wasn’t thinking about neuroscience as a subject of study when he founded his finance school. But since the launch of Michael Platt’s Wharton Neuroscience Initiative (WiN) in 2016, the professor has proven there’s much for business leaders to learn from studying the brain. Of starting the initiative and this course, Platt says, “It became clear to me that every domain in business could be affected, impacted, and improved by better understanding how people think and feel.”

The half-semester course gives undergraduates and MBAs an entry point into the field, exploring not only neuroscience’s potential to impact sectors like marketing and finance, but also employee dynamics in areas such as teamwork and innovation. (For neuroscience applications that you can use immediately on the job, see “Give Your Communications a Boost.”) Following the course, many students go on to take additional classes under the WiN umbrella and ultimately conduct research through the initiative. “What we found is that students for a while have been trying to put this together on their own,” says Platt. “What we’re offering ends up fulfilling their interest in combining science and business.”

Science Meets Shark Tank
As unusual as the material is the format of each class: Following a roughly 45-minute lecture, Platt sends students off in teams to workshop new business applications based on the concepts just discussed. The class then reconvenes to hear business pitches from two of the teams. (Concepts have included boosting teamwork during online meetings by sending gentle “buzzes” to teammates to activate the social brain network, using eye-tracking software to uncover the processing steps that students struggle with while learning math, and using heart rate to inform match selection on dating apps.) Over the remainder of the course, students refine those concepts and present them during the final session. “The purpose is not to get them in the mind-set of being a neuroscientist,” says Platt, “but to get them to think of a business challenge or opportunity through the lens of neuroscience.”

Teaching for These Times

This macroeconomics course connects with the concerns of today’s MBAs by applying big-picture concepts to some of society’s most pressing issues.

Macroeconomics and the Global Economic Environment

Andrew Abel, Ronald A. Rosenfeld Professor, professor of finance, professor of economics

Real-World Relevance
To help students grapple with the complex topics taught in his long-standing version of this MBA requirement, professor Andrew Abel is turning theory into practice. “In tailoring this course to an MBA audience, I take the economic theory and data in the core section of each of my lectures and apply them to a topic like the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, or hyperinflation,” says Abel, who started structuring his syllabus this way roughly 25 years ago. The professor, one of a few to teach the course, allows for time to talk about these practical applications, dubbed “current policy topics,” at the end of each class. “It’s a way to signal to students that what we cover is related to real life,” he says. “It’s not just textbook stuff.”

While these topics have long been a part of the course, Abel keeps things fresh by switching them up annually. Abel’s curriculum has also been acutely impacted by events of the past year: The pandemic factors into almost every class, and new policy topics this spring include charitable contributions as they relate to inequality and carbon taxes in light of climate change.

Worldwide Approach
Equally important to the course is its global lens. “The title isn’t just marketing,” says Abel, who devotes four lectures specifically to international economics and regularly uses data and examples from other countries in his lessons. Some of the current events discussed include monetary policy in Argentina and whether China is a currency manipulator. “Our student body is global,” he says, “and I want to address their concerns.”

Virtual Opportunities
The switch to online teaching last year has allowed Abel to experiment with a new technique: pre-lectures. These recordings contain what had traditionally been covered in the first 30 minutes of class. Abel asks students to view those videos in preparation for each session, a change that has allowed him to delve into topics more comprehensively. “I can give a little more color on things,” he says, adding that the pre-lectures may stick around post-pandemic.

All Business Is Local

Students dig into the issues that matter for both their careers and their communities.

Illustration of students examining a model of a city.

Urban Fiscal Policy

Fernando Ferreira, C.F. Koo Professor, professor of real estate, professor of business economics and public policy

Exponential Growth
When Fernando Ferreira took over Urban Fiscal Policy from emeritus professor Bob Inman in 2017, he saw an opportunity for expansion. The course had previously been taught to a group of roughly 45 undergraduates; Ferreira added a new section of the same size for MBAs. Perhaps as a sign of appetite for the material covered, those two sections have since expanded to 70 spots apiece.

“Students take this course to understand how cities and other local governments matter for people and firms,” says Ferreira. In particular, the course examines the many public services those governments provide. It’s a topic that’s been thrust into the spotlight in recent years with scrutiny over issues such as rent control and housing affordability, the pandemic’s outsize influence on cities, and calls to reallocate police budgets in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ferreira also covers topics that have long been of interest, such as school finances, crime, corruption, infrastructure investments, congestion, pensions, and more.

Universal Appeal
Given the range and complexity of issues discussed, the course is positioned not just within Wharton’s business economics and public policy department, but also in its finance and real estate departments. Some 75 percent of students who take the course come from those areas, but interest doesn’t stop there. “About a quarter of students come from other places at Wharton and Penn,” says Ferreira. “They all have a common interest in those topics but in many cases have never had the chance to understand them. They have a sense that they need to know more about the governmental institutions — that they need to know more about the research, or better position their firms or even themselves for future jobs, or just be able to have a conversation and understand the reality.”

Taking the Classroom to the Clients

A health-care management course matches MBAs with hospital systems, biotech companies, investors, and more for hands-on collaboration.

Health Care Management: Field Application Project

Mark Pauly, Bendheim Professor, professor of health-care management, professor of business economics and public policy; June Kinney, associate director of MBA Health Care Management program, lecturer

On-the-Ground Experience
To expose students to the complex situations they’re sure to encounter after graduating, Wharton offers courses that provide the opportunity to work with clients on semester-long projects. For MBA health-care management majors, this outside-the-classroom experience is a requirement. “This course is a real baptism to the sector as a whole,” says professor Mark Pauly. “One thing students get out of this is experience with the uncertainty that surrounds any management decision and how to deal with it.” For example: “There will almost always be finance issues,” says Pauly. “How are you going to pay for whatever your client wants to do? Is there a value proposition that will convince someone to pay for the new idea?”

Each semester, students sign up to work on client-submitted proposals, such as deciding whether an organization should consider new services or target other diseases with current offerings. In one instance last year, students explored the feasibility of bringing CAR-T cell therapy, a cancer-fighting immunotherapy pioneered by Penn Medicine’s Carl June, to Costa Rica. As part of the project, the team flew to the country pre-COVID to assess capabilities and logistics there.

For the spring semester, teams were paired with clients ranging from GoodRx, the operator of a prescriptiondrug price comparison platform, to Epione Healthcare Solutions, an organization founded by Garikai Govati WG13 that develops, finances, and operates health-care facilities in Africa. Other clients sit outside the traditional realm of health-care services, such as Lee Equity Partners, a private equity firm that focuses in part on investments in the space.

“There’s a lot of variety, and in some ways, it’s very instructive for us as well, because we get real-time windows into all different kinds of worlds in health care,” says June Kinney, who co-teaches the course.

Unique Academic Architecture
Instead of meeting regularly with students in the classroom, Pauly and Kinney see each team a number of times over the course of the semester to talk about their projects. They connect students with other Penn experts for input as well. The health-care alumni network, in particular, is “an invaluable resource to these teams for certain things they’re researching,” says Kinney. “We rely on them for more of a real-time professional opinion about what’s going on.” The instructors also tap communications expert Ann Fischer to critique teams’ work before their final presentations.

To help students get even more from the experience, the instructors encourage them to view the project as an opportunity to understand company dynamics more broadly. “We have them tell us later what they learned about how the company is managed: How does it think about finance, marketing, team coordination, or getting a sense for a market?” says Pauly. “We challenge them to think of things from the client’s perspective.”

Rebooting a Classic

A long-established course expands its scope to cater to students’ wide-ranging interests.

Illustration of students and a professor gathered around a large wearable device.

Product Management

Karl Ulrich, CIBC Endowed Professor, vice dean of entrepreneurship and innovation, professor of operations, information and decisions, management professor

More Than Just a Name Change
After more than two decades of teaching Product Design and Development, professor Karl Ulrich decided it was time for a course makeover. His decision to rename the class Product Management three years ago wasn’t just a sign of fine-tuning — it was an indication of a larger shift in content. Typically taught to Executive MBAs on both coasts in the fall and full-time MBA students in the spring, the course previously focused on the ins and outs of product design, cost, and creation. It culminated in a design fair at which students would present working prototypes of products they had developed throughout the course.

Now, as the class’s new name suggests, Ulrich has broadened the scope to draw attention to additional aspects of the product life cycle, including measuring post-development performance and tracking growth. Although the design fair — a beloved part of the curriculum — no longer exists, Ulrich has introduced new elements, including an emphasis on alumni speakers. Among the guests this spring: Effie Wang C06 GED07 WG14, director of product management at Grubhub, and Airbnb product manager Mike Hinckley WG17.

Myriad Applications
Why the shift? The course now more fully reflects the range of positions in which students will need to know about best practices. “Many students are interested in product roles,” says Ulrich. “While most of them won’t be product managers, they will likely interact with product managers in general management roles. Some also hope to pursue entrepreneurial activities, for which product management is very relevant.”


Published as “Anatomy of a Wharton Course” in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of  Wharton Magazine.