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President's View Mail Class Notes Features

Photos by Kris Qua

Sticks, Styrofoam, and Spaghetti
The helium stick is just one example of the many skill-based interactive exercises used to teach leadership development at Rensselaer. Walk into the office of any Archer Center educator, like Catherine Persoon, and you will find stacks of boxes containing items such as Styrofoam peanuts, straws, and spaghetti. “You’d be surprised what you can do with spaghetti,” she says. Persoon uses these materials in adventure-based activities that are taught in the same manner as corporate training.

“One of the great things about adventure-based activities is they are not graded, so students have the opportunity to explore team dynamics without any pressure,” she says.

Persoon describes one exercise on problem solving called “Toxic Waste.”

Linda McCloskey

Archer Center Director Linda McCloskey. Photo by Mark McCarty

“We create a circle with a 15-foot radius. Students are not allowed to enter the circle. In the circle are two number 10 tin cans; one is filled with unpopped popcorn kernels, the other is empty. Students are given tools — five pieces of rope and half of a bicycle inner tube. That’s it. They work in teams and are asked to lift the container with kernels and pour it into the empty container without spilling one kernel. They can only use the tools they were given and they must never enter the circle. They can solve it, but it takes time.”

Persoon says through the exercise students learn about the complexity of teamwork, what works and what doesn’t, and what happens when they get frustrated. They learn how to stay involved in the process even if everyone does not share the same skills, how to delegate responsibility, and how to support each other while working toward a common goal. As students develop more skills — team building, team dynamics, communication, and the impact of ethics and values on design or management decisions — it becomes easier for them to meet those challenges. The sophomore IED students, for example, are assigned teams and put their new skills to the test as they learn how to work together to create a new design and develop a prototype.

Leadership development takes a slightly different approach with management students. In the course Management Leadership I, the focus is on experiential exercises that could be applied to the workplace. Students learn leadership theories and principles, and use case studies as their learning tools. One case study presented by Archer Center educator Valerie Oropallo involved a person in the health field who created a listserv of patients’ names. “His intent was to help the patients, but actually he ended up violating their confidentiality,” Oropollo says. The students then analyzed the situation and applied the lessons to their management studies and to real-world practices.

Selected readings, discussions, and written assignments, as well as guest speakers from the corporate sector, round out leadership education in academic courses. Students may choose to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which categorizes people into 16 distinctive personality types by asking questions such as: “How do you take in information? How do you make decisions? How do you orient yourself to the world?”

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Rensselaer Magazine: Spring 2004
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