Building Bridges through Chapter Leadership Training

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SPS Chapters on Professional Development

Building Bridges through Chapter Leadership Training


Nolan Tenpas, with Co-Authors Roel Olvera, Paris Foster, Nwankwo Nwankwo, and Matthew Macasadia, SPS Members, Texas Lutheran University

TLU SPS chapter members pose at PhysCon 2019 with their advisor, Dr. Toni Sauncy (second from right). Photos courtesy of the TLU SPS chapter.Physics students learn some of the most fundamental laws that govern our very existence, uncovered by great scientists like Newton, Curie, and Einstein. But we’re less often exposed to the philosophical ideas put forward by these scientists. One of the most well-known physicists, Isaac Newton, once said, “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

We as a society need bridges now more than ever. This is the philosophy that the Texas Lutheran University (TLU) SPS chapter leaders followed in 2019, and to that end we decided to put together an inclusive leadership training session for the early fall of 2019. Our SPS advisor, Dr. Toni Sauncy, created an agenda for the one-day event and enlisted students to lead the session.

An important aspect of our leadership training came from thinking about what leadership in STEM should embody. TLU has a number of groups in the natural sciences similar to SPS. We decided to invite them to join the leadership training so that we could all learn from and guide one another. The more diverse the group, the more valuable input there is to share and the better we can build bridges between the disciplines and learn from one another.

We’ve learned that a successful training session includes some necessities: safety, diversity, meaningful activities, scheduling—and, of course, snacks! Here we share how we organized our event.

Arguably the single most important part of our training happened within the first 10 to 20 minutes. We opened with a universal agreement from all attendees to appreciate every person in the room and their ideas. We wanted to ensure that every participant would be respected and protected. It was paramount that attendees felt safe; otherwise, they may have held back input or experiences.

An interactive training wouldn’t be complete without meaningful activities and conversations. Topics included effective leadership, creative problem solving, having difficult conversations, and serving our members, among others. One of our favorite activities was breaking into small groups and appreciating the value and individuality of random objects, such as a cup or a knife, and then applying that thinking to our clubs. The exercise demonstrates that each person has a unique set of skills they can bring to the table. Understanding this is vital for engaging members and helping them grow.

We also set aside time for leaders to plan their club activities for the coming semester. Creating a schedule like this can sometimes feel like a burden, especially after a long day of work and activities, but doing so in advance helps to keep the group on track throughout the semester. With everyone on the same page, a chapter is more likely to thrive.

Leadership training can be long, so we had snacks to keep participants sharp and focused. Who doesn’t love Oreos while they’re working through a 20-week schedule?

From the SPS chapter perspective, the 2019 training helped our officers set goals for the year and align their focus. The training produced an especially motivated group of student leaders who were passionate about moving our SPS chapter forward. As a result of participating in leadership training with other STEM group leaders, we also saw new friendships form between the leaders of various clubs.

We saw firsthand that experiences like this do not end when the meeting is finished. The metaphors and analogies brought into such a critical-thinking environment not only got everyone involved and engaged, but established a strong bond among attendees. Being able to learn from one another created an understanding that all parties are equal and all ideas are worth bringing to the table. This kind of leadership has helped us be successful both inside and outside of the school environment.

We have discovered that leadership training is crucial for creating a unified and effective leadership team. We held a virtual second training in 2020 and look forward to continuing the leadership training tradition, hopefully in person, for many years to come. Building bridges has to start with the leaders. We have a vision of a unified network of STEM student organizations in the future, and as George Washington Carver said, “Where there is no vision, there is no hope.”

SPS chapter president Roel Olvera presents his small group’s thoughts on the value of a red Solo cup to 2019 workshop attendees.

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