Outdoor Education’s Leadership Program Goes Virtual

Cornell’s Leadership Program facilitators.

Programs across the country transitioned to virtual platforms in the spring of 2020 due to COVID-19, and leadership trainings were no different.

At Cornell University, the Team and Leadership Center transformed to become a completely online offering. Karel Hilversum, the co-director of Cornell Outdoor Education with the Team and Leadership Center being a division of it, said classes and students still needed this training, so they quickly made the shift.

Instead of meeting in-person on the school’s challenge course, Hilversum said they developed a series of modules with about 30 different activities that tap into decision-making, collaboration and problem-solving skills, as well as work to build trust among participants.

One module is an escape room that can have five to seven different stages. Teams will be presented with a riddle and will have to solve it as a group in order to move on to the next stage. Another module was taken from a task the Team and Leadership Center did in person. A YouTube video shows a rope piled on the ground. The group has to decide when pulled by both ends, unraveling the pile, if the rope will come out with or without a knot in it. “We give them a whole grid of team decision making styles … they have to choose a style and make a decision as a group,” said Hilversum.

Some activities are simpler. One is an at-home scavenger hunt. Students are asked to bring an object from around their home that represents them, and then they will share why it’s meaningful.

Hilversum said the response from the students has been positive on the outdoor program turned virtual. And they plan on doing about four dozen rounds of these leadership trainings from now until September.

In putting this together, Hilversum said learning from others was key. He and his staff jumped on as many calls as possible to learn from other peers in the industry. It’s important to make sure your staff are involved and believe in the process.

He also said front loading the process with hyper structure is essential in building a virtual leadership program. Plus, practicing is key. Hilversum jumped on a beta test with several friends to test out activities and get their feedback. “All the work happens before you actually deliver the program,” he said. “There is very little room to improvise once you start doing this online. So, practicing and preparing upfront is crucial.”

All in all, Hilversum said the change has forced them out of their comfort zone, but it’s been good. They are reaching students and customers they wouldn’t have with only the physical challenge course leadership training option. So, from now on, they will have both offerings to accommodate more opportunities in cultivating leaders.

It seems COVID-19’s effects have been turned positive once again. “Breakdowns produce breakthroughs,” said Hilversum.

Heather Hartmann is the editor for Campus Rec Magazine. She can be reached at heather@peakemedia.com.

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