Groups strengthen transition back to campus with team-building activities
Challenge Program facilitates teambuilding varying challenges
After a long year attending classes in pajamas and watching lectures through Zoom while still in bed, students returned to campus for in-person learning in 2021–22. Although an exciting change, it has been a difficult transition for many. Fortunately, academic departments, athletic teams and other groups have the opportunity to strengthen face-to-face connections in a screen-to-screen world through teambuilding activities right on campus.
Binghamton University’s Challenge Course, also known as a ropes course, provides engaging adventure-based teambuilding programs through unusual activities and fun obstacles, known as elements. Binghamton’s course features a series of both high and low course elements, ranging from “The Whale Watch,” a huge teeter-totter platform that helps groups literally and figuratively find balance, to a 200-foot zipline that runs through the woods.
The outdoor course offers an experiential tool to help groups learn new ways of communicating and working together. Activities focus on risk-taking, performance under pressure, giving and receiving support, going beyond personal perceived limits and, most importantly, learning the benefits of collaboration.
For the first time in almost two years, Campus Recreation’s Outdoor Pursuits program staff have guided groups through the Challenge Course. One group from the Chemistry Department took to the course recently. Alexsa Silva, the department’s director of instruction and outreach, and her graduate teaching assistants (TAs) were looking to start the semester as a true team.
The Department of Chemistry
The group’s first activity was an icebreaker that used small marbles and several cut tubes. Outdoor Pursuits instructors demonstrated how to transport a marble from the starting point to the finishing point, by moving quickly to connect the tubes in a timely manner.
Although the activity seemed relatively easy, the TAs soon realized that the “simple” task of transporting a marble from a tube into a bucket required a lot more communication, cooperation, leadership and problem-solving skills than expected. After only a few minutes, almost all of the TAs, who had been split into two groups, were seen smiling, laughing, joking around and cheering each other on. After several attempts, some participants took on the role of leader, instructing teammates on how to successfully transport the marble from the tubes into the bucket.
Silva said the icebreaker was the most relevant to the teams. “They struggled a lot [while having fun], until they realized that they had to work with each other,” she said.
TA Benjamin Hough agreed that the simple-yet-unusual marble activity was the most helpful for team building. “That exercise required a lot of coordination, communication and troubleshooting,” he said. “I think it brought out our natural roles (facilitator, organizer, etc.), which lends insight into how we function as a cohesive team.”
Despite their fears, the members of the group also tried the zipline; nearly everyone completed it to the cheers of teammates. By the end of the course, Silva and Vince Van Nostrand, coordinator of upper-level chemistry laboratory courses, knew a lot more about their graduate assistants and their personalities that would be useful in tailoring future activities.
“With such a diverse background of graduate students coming together, communication and trust are difficult to attain quickly. I hoped that this Challenge Course would break down some of the barriers and let the students see that everyone struggles with something, leading to some common ground from which they can build trust and work through future challenges together,” said Van Nostrand. “I feel that the members of my team work well together, communicate openly and trust each other to help when asked.”
Silva said this was the first time she brought her graduate students to the Challenge Course, and it helped build strong relationships, trust and open communication. In past years, it would take a couple of weeks to achieve the same level of comfort and trust that her students gained after an afternoon on the Challenge Course.
In-person team building allows for nonverbal communication like body language, eye contact and posture, all critical to teaching college students, said Van Nostrand. “These graduate students will each lead lab courses, and first-year students often show frustration or boredom in nonverbal ways. Throughout these challenges, which can be frustrating, the team members may have recognized various ways of expressing emotions from their teammates.”
The Master of Music in Opera program
Students from the opera program also tackled the course this semester, under the watchful eyes of Jean Miller Goodheart, lecturer of voice and lyric diction, and Thomas Goodheart, associate professor of voice.
Although Miller Goodheart had known her students for some time, she learned new things about them after they navigated the course. “Some people showed strong leadership that I didn’t expect. I saw different aspects of people, allowing me to understand to not judge someone too quickly,” she said. “People tend to rise to the occasion.”
Although the students knew each other before the Challenge Course, many felt that trust and self-awareness are two skills they developed after the activities.
“It was very fun and satisfying,” said a student in the program. “We all bonded more with everyone there. Some I knew better than others and I got to talk to other people.”
Men’s and women’s swimming and diving
The final group that used the Challenge Course to prepare returning students was led by Jerry Cummiskey, the head coach of men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and Heather Colby, the women’s swimming and diving coach, along with the Binghamton University Diving Team.
The swimmers and divers had already participated in the Challenge Course before the COVID-19 pandemic, so many knew what to expect. Some, however, felt that the post-COVID-19 session was more important for team building due to the pandemic restrictions.
“Two years ago, [in] fall 2020, I was able to partake in the ropes course and it was the first time we completed it as the Binghamton University Swimming and Diving Team,” said student-athlete Nathaniel Deguzman. “The most recent session was very important for team building because only two were allowed on the course at once, and everyone else was on the ground cheering for us.
“After the challenge course, I definitely felt more involved,” Deguzman added, “It put all of our bodies to the test because, indeed, we are all athletes who already put our bodies to the test every practice. However, these courses put more emphasis on overcoming barriers. I do not think our team would be as close as it is now if we had not been able to do the ropes course. I know it was an added component to the close-knit relation of our team. Our team always spends time with each other in the locker room, during lift training, or living and eating with each other.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Challenge Course program and what impact it can have on your department, student organization or group, visit Campus Recreation online.