Lost sheep find a way through play

February 21, 2003

Team problem-solving exercises on a Welsh hillside are preparing students for work placements. Pat Leon writes.

Shepherding sheep on a Welsh hillside in winter is not everyone's idea of fun - unless you are a blindfolded computer science student from Aberystwyth University. The lost-sheep scenario is one exercise that budding software engineers enjoy during a compulsory departmental weekend break designed to raise student motivation and build staff-student bonds, while sharpening employment skills.

The first-year students' weekend at Aberdyfi Outward Bound Centre has been running since 1993. It proved so successful that an industrial awareness weekend for second-years was introduced with senior industrialists invited along as volunteer advisers on resumes and interviews.

Aberystwyth's computer science department prides itself on responding to the industrial job market. Many staff come from industry and have seen the skills shortcomings of graduates.

Mark Ratcliffe, teaching director, says the department has encouraged students to take an industrial year between second and third years. The weekends can act as preparation.

"More than 85 per cent of students spend a year in industry after their second year," he says. "To maintain this proportion, a great deal of effort is put into student placements. Improving the employability of students makes this task much easier. Software engineering is done in teams, and understanding teamwork should be part of every student's experience."

The weekend is Ratcliffe's brainchild. He drew on his experiences as a visiting professor at the University of Puget Sound, Washington State.

The outdoor activities are designed to promote analysis, decision-making and role identification - all skills that software engineers use.

For many students, the Friday-night "ice-breaker" is more of a short, sharp shock. Scarcely have they been assigned into groups of ten with a staff "facilitator" than they are pitched out in rain and wind. They compete in games such as standing in a row astride two planks with rope handles attached and trying to walk the planks in harmony over 10m. Debriefing takes place in the bar.

Lynda Thomas, a senior teaching fellow in the department, says: "In the early years, the significance of Friday-night games in gaining students'

cooperation was not fully appreciated. We tried quiz nights and projects, but none had quite the same positive effect."

Students are in for more shocks. A long day of problem-solving and physical exercises is ahead. The "shepherd and lost sheep" scenario is always a favourite. All students are blindfolded. They have ten minutes to plan how their shepherd will round up the dispersed flock - for example, by clapping or whistling. Having observed the discussion, staff select a shepherd, whose blindfold is removed. The choice of shepherd varies. If the aim is to boost group confidence, a vocal student is chosen; if the group needs to improve communication, the person who paid least attention may be picked.

The aim is to inculcate the importance of planning and communication.

But it is bravery, bravura and group cheers that help students cope with the most terrifying exercise: the trapeze. They have to climb an 8m pole - with safety equipment. Those who reach the top have a 12cm standing room from which to launch themselves into the air and grab a trapeze 1m to 2m away. Weekend rules require staff to do whatever students do. One secretary attempted the trapeze with gusto every year for a decade.

Ratcliffe says the exercise, like so many at Aberdyfi, shows how much good team work can achieve. "We have helped many final-year students facing difficulties with their dissertations to recall the trapeze, how impossible they thought it and how they mastered it with the help, support and encouragement of others."

Staff say that one unexpected spin-off of working with students at close quarters and seeing how they relate to their peers is that they can identify potential problems. Almost without exception, students who have problems on these weekends cause the department difficulties over the next three years.

The weekends cost about £80 a head. Initially this was covered by pump-priming government initiatives and industrial sponsorship, but now the department pays 80 per cent and the students the rest, except in hardship cases.

Ratcliffe and Thomas believe the weekends have built a departmental spirit.

Attendance has improved to more than 90 per cent, students participate more in class and retention rates are one of the highest in the UK.

"The best success indicator is that, even though we have more students than ever, we still find industrial placements, something that many other universities cannot claim," Ratcliffe says.

But then not many universities would think of sending computer science and software engineering up a Welsh mountain to play at being sheep.

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