A cluster of Altoona eighth-graders braced themselves, standing on a platform above a pool of water. One student directed her teammates to cross the pool using a wooden board as a bridge.
That scene at Volk Field in Camp Douglas made Kim Erickson, an Altoona eighth-grade language arts teacher, proud.
“It’s a scenario in real life of what could happen if a bridge was bombed out and you needed to get supplies from point A to point B,” she said. “They absolutely did a wonderful job.”
Half of the Altoona Middle School eighth-grade class traveled to Camp Douglas Friday for the Leadership Development Course, a military-style, problem-solving obstacle course aimed at older students. (The other half completed the course Sept. 26).
The course, run by the National Guard, is “one of the most unique group challenge activities (we’ve) participated in before,” said Steve Buss, Altoona Middle School principal.
Through 11 challenges over four hours, students wearing protective gear had 15 minutes to move heavy objects across obstacles, transport team members across bodies of water and strategize on scaling a slanted 15-foot wall.
Before each challenge, teams of students were given the rules and a scenario: They could be tasked to build a bridge, deliver supplies to a camp or navigate floodwaters.
First, a “recon” student scoped out the challenge, then a leader helped the team brainstorm before the timer began.
In some of the challenges, students weren’t allowed to speak, while the teachers and a National Guard instructor watched from a platform above.
“It tested all of your abilities at the same time,” said eighth-grader James Verville. “(We) had to be strategic.”
In one challenge, Verville crawled through a tunnel “at least seven or eight times” to help his teammates across an obstacle, he said.
“It kind of felt like we were in a movie,” Verville said. “Doing those drills wasn’t like a bunch of kiddie activities.”
Students were teamed with other students they didn’t know very well, Erickson said. Some of the students were surprised at how well they worked with their peers.
“If you tried to do it alone, it wouldn’t work,” said eighth-grader Bella Bauer. “ ... Even if someone’s not athletic, there’s still ways for them to help.”
For Erickson, watching her students strategize to solve problems was the best part.
“You can hear the excitement in their voices when they talk about it,” she said. “It’s kind of a secret hidden gem. From an adult’s perspective, it was really fun to see the groups blossom as the day grew on, as they helped each other.”
It’s the first time Altoona Middle School has participated in the free course, Buss said.
“The point of doing this is getting them to jell in what is their last year in middle school before they get to high school, but also develop leadership and communication skills,” Buss said, adding that students had “a resounding phenomenal experience.”
The challenging course brought out hidden strength in many of her teammates, said eighth-grader Lydia Bach.
“You felt really empowered,” Bach said. “I think we all impressed each other.”