Course Description

RPTA 275: Facilitation and Teambuilding

At a military obstacle course, students learn how to build an effective team — and what makes a good leader.

A group of students rolls a barrel across an impromptu plank bridge while a uniformed Army officer watches.

On a sunny Saturday morning in January, a uniformed active-duty Army officer gives a group of Cal Poly students a mission briefing. They have 30 minutes to transport their team and a crate of critical equipment through a narrow culvert and across a river. The bridge has been destroyed. Enemy patrols are in the area. They must work together to deliver the package — or else.

With the support of classmates at the top, a young man uses a rope to haul a barrel up a steep yellow ramp.

Students worked together to transport their entire team, plus a big steel barrel, over a massive set of steep ramps.

OK, the stakes aren’t that high. That mission is a group bonding exercise, part of the experience industry management (EIM) course RPTA 275: Facilitation and Teambuilding. The activity, run on a military obstacle course at the National Guard base Camp San Luis Obispo, is designed to get students thinking about how to build an effective team — and what makes a good leader.

“Being a leader involves being part of a team, and followers are just as important as a leader to make a group happen,” says EIM professor Marni Goldenberg, who teaches the course. “Working together and having positive group dynamics is an important aspect in so many settings.”

One task involves moving the team across a long bridge that has been reduced to scattered posts, using only a few long planks. Another involves transporting a large barrel up and over a series of steep ramps. A particularly vexing challenge involved moving the team and some gear across a span of loose ropes and up and over a high wall using only a small board.

“The board is actually just a distraction — the challenge is designed so that it doesn’t really help in any way,” says Joseph Benning, the exercise facilitator and Army captain, who is also a Cal Poly faculty member in the military science program. “The interesting thing is seeing how long it takes them to figure that out.”

In the first few challenges, some leaders begin to emerge, suggesting ideas and stepping up to take charge. But with guidance from the course facilitators — Benning and two Cal Poly military science students and ROTC cadets — everyone has a chance to play a critical role.

Everyone has different skills they bring to the table in a team setting, says Vinnie Faas, a first-year EIM major.

“I find myself charging forward too fast sometimes without thinking things through, and I know some others are a lot better at that part than I am,” says Faas. “Teamwork is not always easy for me personally, but that’s why I’m here.”

This is a short course — only two units — and it’s still early in the quarter, so the students haven’t had much time to bond yet. That fact ratchets up the pressure as students struggle to haul a steel barrel across two raised platforms over a rushing “river.”

“I’m just making friends with all of these people — we’ve had a total of maybe four hours of knowing each other,” says Samantha Wildman, a second-year EIM major.  “We’re just adapting to each other’s comfort levels and seeing what happens when you get a group of people and you put them into intense situations like this very quickly. But we’re doing good.”

In the short time that they’ve worked together, Goldenberg has already given them some solid tools to build networks of support. Each student has been assigned a “High 5 buddy,” and between activities the pairs check in to discuss their challenges and what they’re learning.

The group has also worked together to develop a pledge of cooperation and understanding, in the form of a class flag emblazoned with each student’s handprint, a statement of values and their signatures — a flag that Faas wears as a cape throughout the exercise.

The explicit goal of the class is to teach future recreational activity guides, leadership coordinators, and business managers how to lead and facilitate teambuilding exercises, but Goldenberg thinks that the lessons apply to a much broader swath of life.

“How do we communicate? How do we trust? How do we work together? Team building is the framework for everything,” says Goldenberg. “Even students who aren’t EIM majors are going to get something out of this — even if it’s just their own personal development.”

A person walks over a raised plank with teammates spotting them on either side.

In the first challenge, students worked together to cross a chasm using planks and posts.

Not every student in the class is planning to go into tourism or management training — but that’s OK.

“I’m not specifically interested in adventure courses, but I think that these are skills that will help you in any career,” says Wildman. “Being able to get along with people and problem solve — the skills that you’re building here will help you wherever you’re at.”