Energy 'crisis' provides engineering students leadership experience

June 15, 2021

The subpoena arrived at 9:45 p.m. on Friday, ordering the fictitious Wolfhelm Mining Ltd. executive team to appear in court. Their presence was requested to testify on an unfolding crisis that began a few hours earlier when a dam containing mining waste was breached on a remote Asian-Pacific island, flooding several villages, claiming the lives of hundreds and contaminating the region's drinking water supply. It wasn't until 11 p.m. that the students got any good news — that a Penn State research team rumored to be in the area had been found unharmed.

The simulated crisis continued for the next 24 hours and student teams were assigned to address the ever-increasing problems.

"We were just getting email, after email, after email," said Rosellen Martin, who graduated this spring with a degree in energy engineering. "The night was so stressful. I couldn't read and keep up that fast."

The roller coaster evening was part of the Energy Crisis Leadership Challenge, designed as the capstone project for an energy business and finance course in the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering (EME) focused on crisis management.

Throughout the spring semester, students reviewed case studies of actual industry crisis, debated approaches, and heard from energy sector experts to prepare them for navigating stressful emergencies.

Shreya Manoj, who graduated this spring with a degree in energy engineering, said the entire class is an excellent opportunity for STEM students to dive into the leadership mindset and prepare for working on a team. 

"It's hard to visualize yourself in that situation. You're not thinking 'what would I do' when you're just reading case studies," said Shreya. "Hearing from a person who was actually involved in a crisis, to have them walk you through their decisions and then to go through a simulation ourselves was a valuable experience." 

The teams continued to work throughout the night and early into Saturday morning, preparing for the board member meeting and press conference.

Experienced Penn State alumni and EME faculty played the contentious board members representing energy companies and experts in media relations from news organizations and the college’s strategic communications staff filled the role of the media. Both the board and the media grilled the student teams, demanding answers.

On Saturday, just shy of 24 hours since the initial email, the challenge was over and the board judged the students on their performance.

Manoj, who won best individual performance, felt grateful for the experience.

"I think there's a method to the madness that is not often taught, and I think that's why this course is different. You really understand what it takes to make decisions and perform in those high-stress situations."

Liam Cummings, who graduated in 2020 with a bachelor of science in energy engineering and minor in energy business and finance, participated as a board member for this year’s challenge. Cummings won the best individual performance award last year and has already seen the benefits in the first year of his career.

"Participating and winning last year made me feel like I can tackle anything that comes my way. Specifically, being able to focus during stressful situations and learning how to prioritize." said Cummings. "This year as a board member, I also learned a great deal deliberating with my fellow board members, who all have had long and interesting careers. It was an awesome opportunity."

The challenge designed by Peter Rigby, a 1979 Penn State graduate in petroleum and natural gas engineering and energy expert, is meant to be a pressure cooker for the students to strengthen their team-working and leadership skills. 

"Today’s employers want people entering the workforce who can solve multidisciplinary problems together and know how to collaborate and cooperate with people of very different backgrounds," said Rigby.

Rigby believes in the heightened importance of real-world experiences and wanted to design a challenge that forces the students to think on their feet, defend their positions and solve the unstructured problems. When watching the student executive teams work together, he was impressed by the results and sees success in many of the student’s futures because of their ‘crisis’ leadership experience.

"This class offers a wealth of nontraditional opportunities to learn and a crisis situation is a great vehicle to push people into an unfamiliar experience, where they can experiment and make mistakes without consequences. It will be an experience these students will never, ever forget."  

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 15, 2021