Students workshop leadership skills on team-building retreat

October 22, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa - In late August, 15 students arrived at Penn State’s Stone Valley Recreation Area for a weekend retreat focused on building self-awareness and authentic leadership as part of a retreat organized by the Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) program.

The group, consisting of undergraduate students enrolled in the ELD minor and Engineering Leadership and Innovation Management (ELIM) graduate students, worked on their leadership and team-building skills through a series of challenging activities and outdoor courses.

“In the ELD program, we focus on building self-awareness and authentic leadership,” said Meg Handley, associate director of engineering leadership outreach and assistant teaching professor in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP). “We want our technical leaders to be able to understand how they show up as leaders, to be conscious of how others’ personalities impact team dynamics, and to learn how to build trust within their teams.”

Chris Ortiz, program director of the Team Development Center at Shaver’s Creek, facilitated the excursion. From analytical team games to outdoor team-building challenges, various activities pushed students to explore their leadership and coaching skills. Ortiz said the ELD students’ ability to observe group dynamics and practice contributing to other’s success in order to complete the team challenges was highly impressive.

“Leading people requires not only an awareness of your own strengths and abilities but also an awareness of the group. Group awareness does not come easy, especially in technical fields focused on production outcomes,” he said. “My hope is that this group of students discovered within themselves the ability to lead with compassion and insight, clearing the obstacles to success for their teams. To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, it is not that we shouldn't enrich ourselves, but how to do so in order that the community around us may also be able to improve?"  

One of the notable activities was the construction of a model of da Vinci’s Bridge. The notorious challenge is based on an invention created by the artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci. The bridge, designed in the late 15th century, was to be self-supporting and bear a substantial amount of weight. Students at the retreat were provided with the materials required to construct a smaller replica of da Vinci’s bridge and with a limited amount of time to do so.

Of the entire experience, Abigail Butter, an ELD undergraduate coach, said that it helped her identify the importance of leadership in a team and in a larger organization.

“This helped reaffirm the role I can play in a team environment. I like to build others up around me and develop them to meet their goals, a style of leadership that is less commonly recognized,” said Butter, a senior majoring in industrial engineering.

Students were also split into two teams and asked to ascend an obstacle course nearly 40 feet in height. This challenged students to understand the importance of trust and using each other’s strengths to get through the obstacles. 

The ELIM graduate students participated in the retreat as a component of their orientation to the graduate program. Dena Lang, associate director of engineering leadership research and associate teaching professor in SEDTAPP, deemed the experience a success.

“The retreat provided students with a fun, engaging weekend to connect with each other and faculty. It set the tone for the experiential focus of the ELIM graduate program in building knowledge and skills related to leadership,” Lang said.

Erik Fredericksen, an ELIM graduate student, believes that the retreat taught him self-reflection, a skill he hadn’t picked up through his time as a leader of several groups at Penn State Berks.

“My biggest takeaway was that leadership is more than just charisma and sounding confident. My style doesn’t fit all other individuals and I need to take this into account,” Fredricksen said. “I have experience and I can motivate, but I needed to take a step back and see that leading is not simply about getting a task or project completed. One needs to consider the people working with them as well.”

On Sunday afternoon, as the retreat neared its end, students gathered to discuss what they had learned through an African philosophy called Ubuntu. According to Ortiz, the concept “I am because we are,” and focuses on the universal bond of sharing that connects humanity.  

“I think the biggest takeaway for me is the importance of building the relationship and connection with people. For technical leaders, people are often too focused on technical skills, and not spending the effort to get to know the person first,” said Jinwen Zhu, an ELIM graduate student. “With established relationships, people are more likely to work together smoothly. When help is needed, a team with strong connections will often be more likely to help each other out and solve the problem together.”

  • Group picture of students

    Fifteen Engineering Leadership Development students spent the weekend at Penn State's Stone Valley Recreation Area to focus on self-awareness and team-building skills.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Students use wooden pieces to build replica of the Da Vinci bridge

    Engineering Leadership Development students build a model of da Vinci’s self-supporting bridge as part of the retreat.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Five students pose for a photo with their thumbs up

    Engineering Leadership and Innovation Managment graduate students Erik Fredrickson and Ashwin Ramnarayanan and Engineering Leadership Development minor students Jennifer Garrison and Raymond Yang prepare for the obstacle course.

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated October 23, 2018