Building aeroplanes and meeting people 

Erivan White – Surrey Business School 

Walking into a university is an intimidating experience: all those professors and clever folk who know so much about academic stuff.  It’s hard enough crossing the threshold for a job interview, let alone doing so to become a student and invest three or more years of your life in an institution which is unfathomable from the outside.  Confidence is of the essence in seeing this challenge through, and confidence comes from meeting and getting to know people who are actually ‘a lot like me’.  

At the planning stage of our Foundation Year, we wanted to do our utmost to create a sense of belonging for new students and to make it clear that we welcomed them to our community, irrespective of past challenges.  What better way to do this than bring all of us together (teaching team and students) to tackle a series of challenges set by someone else?  We decided on a visit to local escape rooms right at the beginning of the term.  The idea was that we would be thrown into a challenging set of tasks, forget our inhibitions and diffidence, and set the tone for working together for the year.  

The escape rooms were just one element of a series of three challenges which ran for half a day.  The provider was well versed in assembling and motivating teams and was keen to know what specific outcomes we envisaged for our students.  Students were randomly assigned to teams on the basis of birthday and then, without delay, given a series of tasks to complete, the highlight of which was the escape rooms themselves.  Other tasks included a catapult challenge and a rope and bar-based puzzle.  Teachers joined the teams for various challenges throughout the day and it became clear to all just how immersive these tasks can be. 

When the pandemic hit, we had to change tack; escape rooms aren’t very conducive to social distancing.  Such had been the success of the exercise that we wanted to retain a team-building element at the beginning of the course.  We worked with the same provider who suggested a GPS challenge and aeroplane-build exercise on campus (all in the open air), the idea being that students find their way to various pre-planned destinations on campus and amass fuel for their aeroplane by collecting evidence planted at those destinations. The quicker they do this the more fuel they accumulate. In the second part of the task the students work together to build an aeroplane from cardboard and various other recyclable components. The team that manages to travel the furthest distance in their aeroplane wins.  Simples! 

The impact of these activities is hard to ascertain in any tangible sense.  What we noticed for sure amongst students was a willingness to communicate and knuckle-down to tasks from the get-go.  They were far less intimidated by crossing that initial communication barrier once teaching started because they had been thrown in together previously and all knew quite a lot about each other (and us) beforehand.  There was undoubtably a team spirit which lasted the year and underpinned the dynamic when it came to communication and group work.  It might be worth adding that we haven’t had a single negative comment about these activities from students (see below).  

The additional advantage of the GPS challenge was that students were able to familiarise themselves with the campus and such enthralling information as the location of the launderette in addition to, obviously, the SU bar and the pizza joint.  Familiarity breeds confidence and builds community and these are the underpinning principles of our approach.  

What the students say: 

The team building event was brilliant as we got to see how everyone in our group worked, some were more practical whereas others were leaders.  

During the first week we went as a group to do some team building exercises, so we can break the ice between other course mates and therefore get to know each other better.  I felt this was a much better practice in meeting new people and making friends.  As when you are put in a room with strangers, and working with people you don’t know, it can be difficult to cooperate with each other.  

The theory of the lectures and seminars then tied in nicely with these team building exercises and taught us the importance of learning how to become an effective team. 

In all honesty introductory group challenges are not a favourite of my mine as they push me outside of my comfort zone, I often feel unenthusiastic about them but I’m glad that it took place regardless.  It pushed us to communicate with one another and use our common strengths in order to complete the given tasks. 

I felt the activities were a great way for us to break down the initial barriers that may have existed had we not done a social activity and should make working with my course-mates more enjoyable for the future.  

I can’t think of a better way to break the ice and compel people to interact and communicate. It sets the scene for what’s to come and does so with great success. Get in touch if you’d like further advice. 

For more information contact:  Erivan White,