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Class project, community impact

May 11, 2012

Wheel-A-Thon posterStudents taking an advertising course taught by NIU professor David Henningsen are hoping their class projects will give a major boost to a local nonprofit organization.

Students in two sections of the upper-level course (COMS 370) were divided into small teams, or mini-advertising agencies, and competed to land a promotional campaign for DeKalb County RAMP. The organization assists people with disabilities and promotes independent living.

The student-led advertising agencies created promotional ad posters for RAMP’s annual Wheel-A-Thon using the organization’s “Wild About the DeKalb County Wheel-A-Thon” slogan.

The event is similar to a walk-a-thon, only participants with and without disabilities are encouraged to use their own wheelchairs or wheelchairs provided by RAMP. This year’s Wheel-A-Thon is set for Sept. 22, and will help raise funds and create awareness about disability issues.

“This type of engaged-learning experience is valuable for students,” says Henningsen, a professor in the Department of Communication. “When creating an ad, there’s a tendency to focus on what content goes into it, without looking at why the content is important. You must be able to explain to your client why an ad is persuasive.”

The projects involved much more than creating a poster. Group leaders interviewed other students and selected their team members. Target audiences were identified and surveyed to see how much they knew about RAMP and the Wheel-A-Thon. Teams also assessed poster locations for maximum impact, created the advertisements and tested each ad on focus groups.

Each team also presented its poster ad campaigns to RAMP last week.

“You can’t get this from a book—you have to go out and do it,” Henningsen says. “This kind of competition is what you see in the real world. You have to be able to show why your ad is the best.”

RAMP this week selected a poster advertisement created by senior Chris Domrzalski’s group to use for its Wheel-A-Thon. Domrzalski credited his “great team” that included classmates Wulu Deah, Ryan Fillingim, Kia Simpson and Chelsea Wright.

“It’s the kind of thing you can’t do without a team,” says Domrzalski, a senior from Mt. Prospect majoring in corporate and organizational communication.

“This is the second large group project like this that I’ve done for an outside company,” he adds. “It makes you realize how many different aspects you need to be aware of when you’re working on a project like this.”

Wheel-A-Thon posterHeather Foulker, DeKalb County RAMP manager, says she loved working with the students and seeing their ideas.

“Chris’s team went above and beyond, and (the group’s) flyer is already posted throughout the NIU campus and the DeKalb community,” Foulker says, adding that all of the students’ contributions will be valuable.

“I think that one of the biggest benefits that RAMP will receive from this is all of the work the students did with the focus groups. We will be able to use that information to determine what we need to do to further market RAMP,” Foulker says.

The winning group in the second section of Henningsen’s advertising course was led by Stephen Christie and included Shakira Bates, Sean Covington, Carolyn Straub and Alicia Tietz. Both winning teams received 50 points of extra credit.

“You’re not only working for a grade, but you’re also working to provide a service for the organization,” says Christie, a graduating senior from Bartlett majoring in media communications. “It’s nice to be able to apply the skills you learn in class to everyday life. That’s ultimately what we’re going to school for.”

Professor Henningsen says there’s one additional bonus related to real-world projects such as this one.

“This was an actual campaign we did for an actual client,” he says. “I always tell students, ‘This is something you put on your resume.’ ”