University News

WIU's Horn Field Staff, Students, Incorporate New Ways to Participate in Virtual Leadership Training

April 29, 2020

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Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of feature stories about Western Illinois University faculty who are adapting and finding unique ways to reach their students during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

MACOMB, IL – Even though faculty and staff at Western Illinois University are distanced physically by the guidelines of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the restrictions have not kept them from working together remotely to provide the best academic experience to students.

Mindy Pheiffer, program director of WIU's Horn Field Campus (HFC), and the student facilitators who work with her, have been collaborating with University faculty and RPTA alumni to provide teambuilding exercises to students in Andi Potter's engineering technology (professional preparation) class. WIU Department of Communication Assistant Professor Stacey Macchi provided the beginning steps, with etiquette tips for participants in the exercise through Zoom technology.

Potter's students were previously scheduled to visit Horn Field Campus this semester to learn about leadership and group dynamics in person and to participate in the challenge course.

"On-site teambuilding and leadership development at Horn Field Campus has come to a halt," said Pheiffer. "How should we address leadership and group dynamics in this unique situation? Does meeting on-line eliminate the need for teaching and learning about leadership and how groups work well in completing projects? Now is the perfect time to flip our strategy to see how we can modify some of the same experiences on-line, just as the curriculum is being delivered."

Pheiffer said she asked the student facilitators at HFC if anyone would like to take on the challenge of creating an online program to teach leadership and development. Amanda Buch, a junior recreation, park and tourism administration (RPTA) major, of Athens, IL, accepted, leading the group of facilitators in preparing for the class session.

Buch said being a part of the online programming was amazing and "quite the journey."

"When everything started and the shelter-in-place order began, I, like so many others, had no idea how anything was going to work," she said. "I was stressed about classes and wondered how I would get the same learning experience when I wasn't actually in the classroom. Obviously, the whole world has adapted. Mindy Pheiffer decided to do the same. We knew that our usual teambuilding and facilitation wouldn't work, but why not try something different?"

Bush said she began researching how other organizations use teambuilding in their online settings and found many articles on icebreakers, questions, and activities that allow participants to talk to each other, as well as facilitators, about their goals and how to work through difficult situations.

"It's not what we are used to, but we found the results to be the same," she said. "Just because we can't be together in the same room, doesn't mean that we can't have the same meaningful and thought-provoking conversations that get people involved and prepare them for a more cohesive relationship with those around them. As for my experience, I have learned so much about adaptability."

Buch added that the things she learned from her research has helped her in her classwork and in her conversations with family and friends.

"We talk about being a leader and what that looks like, we talk about teamwork, we talk about how to be vulnerable and that it's okay if you can't be," she said. "My own experience during Covid-19 and the shelter-in-place order is as unique as anyone else's, but I believe that the tools I've gathered while working through and being a part of HFC's Online Connections have made me a better leader and team member, and that is my hope for anyone who participates in our programs."

The online project was undertaken, Pheiffer said, partially in an effort to keep up the spirits of the HFC facilitators after classes transferred to alternative formats.

"Andi Potter offered to let us give it a go with her class," said Pheiffer. "Her class comes to Horn every semester, and we have even modified our environment to be able to accomplish most of the same goals in Horrabin Hall when the weather does not allow us to be outside at Horn. So why not try delivering a similar experience on-line?"

Potter said the online class was a unique experience for students to learn about teamwork and leadership skills and her students expressed excellent feedback on the experience.

"Each student was given an opportunity to answer several questions individually, and then the group was instructed to take away the information and return to make group decisions on their overall input," said Potter. "There were natural leaders, or 'captains' is the Horn term; some students offered healthy input and even respectfully processed some debated opinions as 'crew; while others were present as 'cargo,' going along with the majority. While this was a very positive experience for our students, it was missing the unique interpersonal interactions Horn Field Campus provides for teams training every semester. But this was a great alternative."

In addition to faculty, staff and students participating in the project, Pheiffer reached out to alumni on Facebook for volunteers to help with ideas on delivering an online module. Alumna Erin Siebers, a 2007 RPTA master's degree graduate, who works at Maine Health as a simulation training specialist, volunteered.

"She leads people in online groups, and while she taught us more than we could teach her, she did indicate that the time spent with us opened her view of how to lead her group as a facilitator, not just a supervisor," said Pheiffer.

She added that because it is unclear how long the pandemic will last, this may be a new way to offer activities like this for a while.

"As an outdoor recreation program director, this has really challenged my thinking to stay relevant during these times, as are so many other outdoor recreation professionals," said Pheiffer. "However, I felt much enthusiasm to take it on. We operate under a full-value contract, which includes safety, commitment, respect, accountability and encouragement in all that we do at Horn. These do not go away just because we are working with people online. I am happy to provide a similar experience to other campus groups during this time and, depending upon how long we are under stay-at-home-orders, I'd like to offer it to non-University groups as well.

Pheiffer said she welcomes requests for activities and encourages faculty and group leaders to contact her to see how she can support their efforts.

For more information about WIU's Horn Field Campus, visit or on Facebook at Pheiffer can be contact directly at or by calling (309) 298-4676.

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Office of University Communications & Marketing