Rice engineers take on military-style leadership challenge


Twenty-four Rice engineering students got a taste of boot camp recently, thanks to the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL) and the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC).


Engineering students Kevin Moscon, Claudia Leon and Itzak Hinojosa transport planks through the pipes and across the pillars to fashion a path for themselves. Photo by Ned Thomas.

On Feb. 2, the enlistees, accompanied by Edwin “Ned” Thomas, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering, and Mark Embree and Ray Simar, co-directors of RCEL, traveled to Texas A&M University for a crash course in military-style leadership training. There they met midshipmen from the Houston NROTC Consortium and braved the Leadership Reaction Course (LRC).

The object was to develop leadership skills through rigorous team building and reflection assessment after each event. The course forced students to work in teams to make quick decisions and complete challenging physical obstacles. At the completion of each scenario, the students received evaluations of their performance from the NROTC midshipmen.

Each five-person team rotated the leader position through the five challenges. The leader was briefed on the objective and then described a plan to team members. As a group they had to devise and execute a plan for completing their objective within 10 minutes. For instance, one challenge required them to cross a 20-foot-wide “river” on which only a single square crossbeam of an old footbridge remained. In addition, they had to carry two 12-foot pipes, an empty oil drum and a rope across the river. Team leaders were evaluated by NROTC staff on their ability to take command, communicate, use time and resources effectively and show initiative.


Team members Kevin Moscon, Kiran Pathakota, Shannon Cheng and Claudia Leon must cross to the other side without touching any of the red areas. Photo by Ned Thomas.

“The LRC challenged our student leaders to make decisions under pressure and rally their teams around a mission,” said Embree, professor of computational mathematics. “These essential skills just can’t be learned in the classroom.”.

Stephanie Tzouanas, a junior in bioengineering, was responsible for organizing the event and recruiting students. “RCEL is all about empowering engineering students to take initiative and lead,” she said. “This event exemplified the RCEL mission, since it was a student-led event from beginning to completion. I’m really honored to have been able to put the event together.”

Like most first-time LRC participants, none of the Rice teams successfully completed the river challenge. “Leaders don’t just go in headfirst,” said Claudia Leon, a junior in mechanical engineering. “They have to keep their team in mind, not just the objective but also their team’s well-being.”

Ricardo Márquez, a sophomore in electrical engineering, said, “Leadership experiences like the LRC are very valuable for engineers because they expose us to practical leadership problems and develop leadership qualities we wouldn’t have otherwise encountered in a technical environment.”

Another visit by engineering students to the LRC is planned. “Leadership is a core competency of our program,” said NROTC Commanding Officer Capt. William Fitzgerald.  “We look forward to hosting future events.”

Thomas was impressed by the enthusiasm of the Rice engineers: “We plan to incorporate more of this action-learning into future RCEL activities. This is just the stuff needed to develop leaders.”


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