August 17, 2017
Trust Falls and Challenges: A Day at the Leadership Institute
Students work together to complete a rope-centric Challenge Course exercise.
If a high school student trust falls in the forest, does it make them a better leader?
If the Brown Leadership Institute’s recent Challenge Course day was any indication, the answer is most likely yes.
Balancing on three small wooden platforms a foot off the ground one recent Thursday afternoon, 12 Leadership Institute students were deep in thought about how to get the entire team onto one platform using only two narrow planks and without touching the ground. All around, from other parts of the woods, cheers and laughter could be heard as other groups completed various tasks.
One by one, the students walked carefully across the planks. The group fine-tuned their strategy with each pass, adjusting the position of the planks so that they could better handle the weight of each student without sliding apart or tipping up at one side. Students who were on the receiving end of the platforms worked together to weigh down the planks, while others offered up ideas and words of encouragement. When it seemed like the students were struggling with what to do next, facilitators Allison Kumar and Marko Winedt threw out tips: “There are things you aren’t doing right that could make it way easier.”
Finally, all were across except one male student. In what seemed like a lightbulb moment, the students, using equal parts principles of physics and communication, scrambled to arrange the boards just so. His classmates waited in silent anticipation on the other end to see if their plan would work.
Coordination was key to getting a group across three wood platforms using only two thin planks.
It was the climax of a day spent working through challenges both big and small on Brown’s Haffenreffer campus in scenic waterfront Bristol.
Taking a break from their courses on women and leadership, human trafficking and environmental justice, 73 Leadership Institute students had loaded onto buses earlier that day and made the trip 30 minutes south. For several years, Leadership Institute and Brown Environmental Leadership Lab students have participated in the Challenge Course as part of their session programming. It’s a day to not only get outside and move, but bond with classmates in a new way while also applying many of the skills they’ve been learning in the classroom in the days leading up to their visit.
“The overarching purpose of the Challenge Course is to provide a fun and engaging opportunity for students to practice and experiment with strengthening and diversifying their leadership skills, learning to adapt and work successfully with a diverse group of people and perseverance to overcome challenges,” explained course coordinator Heather Haynes.
The name of the course may bring to mind high-flying ropes and students donning helmets and harnesses, but the obstacles are mostly comprised of wooden platforms and logs that keep feet much closer to the ground. Instead, the difficulty lies in using critical thinking and group communication to solve sometimes complex problems.
Before taking the 10-minute walk into the woods to get to the course, the students spent the morning doing group activities designed to get them prepared.
Leadership Institute facilitators make sure a student gets across the planks safely.
On the lawn of the Haffenreffer Museum, with Mount Hope Bay in the background, students were broken up by course into six small groups, each led by a college-age group facilitator who is a Teaching Assistant (TA) or Resident Advisor (RA) in theirs or another Brown Pre-College program.
The day started with ice breakers, to which some groups added a touch of comic relief by throwing a rubber chicken to one another. Honks, interspersed with peals of laughter could be heard floating across the lawn as students shared facts about themselves.
“I’m Connie and I like to read fiction.”
“I’m Holden and I have a twin brother.”
“I’m Katrina and this is how my junior year went,” as she squeezed a chicken before tossing it to the next student.
Activities got gradually more challenging as the morning went on.
“The progression of activities is specifically designed to build a strong and cohesive team, with each part being a key building block,” said Haynes.
One group worked on getting a small ball down a series of chutes and into a cardboard pipe standing on the ground. They quickly realized that strategy and communication was going to be key to their success: “Adjust the slope of your chute accordingly,” one person said to the group. “We have to talk to each other, guys, so we always know where the ball is,” suggested another student.
One group works together using chutes to get a ball into a container during the morning exercises.
After several failed attempts, facilitator Neil Goh, a student at Brown, called for a debrief.
“Discuss what went wrong. How can we fix that the next round?”
After a little more discussion of the strategy, finally, success! The group cheered and hugged one another as the ball dropped into the pipe.
In a shady corner of the lawn, another group took part in a human knot challenge. Hands clasped together, they had become entangled in one big mass of humanity and were working together to get loose. It was an exercise in both patience and communication: If too many people tried to move at once, it would only make the knot worse.
In between fits of laughter, they directed one another: “This arm goes under,” and “Now you twist around.”
Kumar, a Leadership Institute TA and student at Northern Kentucky University gently reminded the students not to talk over one another.
“Remember how we talked about having one diva and one mike?”
Before long, the groups had moved on to the trust/spotting portion of the morning. It was a series of activities designed to be a preview of what the students would be doing at the Challenge Course, explained facilitator Winedt, a Brown student from the island of Curacoa.
“This will set the tone for the rest of the day. We will be doing activities that require you to clearly communicate and trust each other.”
Students practice trust falls, one of many exercises meant to strengthen communication skills and group bonds.
One by one, they fell into each other’s arms before working together to move a leaning student around the inside of a tight circle, and lifting others levitation-style off the ground.
When the sequence was completed, students described the experience as equal parts adrenaline rush, fun and a bit scary, but all agreed it had helped them feel more bonded.
“I think we trust each other more now because we have that physical aspect to our group now,” explained one student.
One student gets ready to lean back and get passed around a circle of her peers, another trust exercise groups took part in.
After lunch and a little relaxation, the students gathered their belongings to make the walk down to the Challenge Course.
Brown professor Elena Shih, who is teaching the Leadership Institute course on human trafficking for the third summer, encouraged students to talk to one another about the Action Plans they’ve been working on in class, which they will implement in their communities when they return home.
“In keeping with the collaborative spirit of the program and the day, we want them to talk together and share their ideas,” Shih explained.
Once at the course, students split off into their groups and made their way down wooded paths to their assigned obstacle.
Some were easier: One group figured out a way to stand on and balance a seesawing wooden platform within minutes.
Others posed more of a challenge. Kumar and Winedt’s group was assigned first to an exercise that involved using a rope to swing from one platform to the next while pouring water into a small cup on the ground. With a little negotiation and planning, they all got across, even if most of the water ended up on the ground rather than the cup. Kumar and Winedt emphasized that it wasn’t about completing each exercise perfectly as much as it was about working together to get it done as best they could.
The group’s second obstacle was challenging in a different way. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a massive log, the students were tasked with arranging themselves by birth month without falling off. They quickly figured out how to crouch down to let others pass and even when half the group was told they couldn’t talk as a consequence of someone’s foot hitting the ground, they still managed to get themselves into position. Debriefing after they were finished, several students noted how well the group was working together.
A massive log was the focus of one Challenge Course exercise. Students had to arrange themselves in order of birth month without stepping on the ground.
“I think our communication has been getting better,” while another pointed out that “No one was debating the strategy. We all stuck with the strategy.”
Most students agreed that their communication and leadership skills improved throughout the day. When talking about lessons learned during the course, comments like “I learned To have an open mind, when to step up and step back, listen carefully," and “Everyone's ideas are valid and should not be dismissed," were common.
Ready for the woods, tick-thwarting socks and all, students celebrate new friends and all the fun they are having at the Challenge Course.
Nowhere was it clearer to see these lessons in action than on the last challenge completed by Kumar and Winedt’s group involving the wooden platforms and planks. There were missteps and a few moments of disagreement, but in the end they came together, and landed on a plan that they were sure would work.
The clearing got extra quiet as the last student stepped onto the narrow pieces of wood. He stumbled a bit as the planks shifted below him before regaining his balance and landing in the arms of his waiting group. Their cheers floated up through the dense canopy, alerting everyone around of their well-earned success.