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Experiment seeks to take leadership lessons outside classroom

(Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Many a third-year cadet has asked about the point of learning leadership from a book in a classroom. Now the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department is looking to make its leadership course more relevant by moving the lessons out of the classrooms and into the cadet squadrons.

The goal of the new experiential learning course, Behavioral Science 310Z, is to create a leadership learning experience that sticks with cadets, said Col. Gary Packard Jr., the department head and permanent professor.

"The basic idea is to take a team of people interested in helping coach and teach and develop leadership with cadets and get that experience out of a traditional classroom setting and down where leadership is happening," Packard said. "If we take it out of the traditional way of teaching class and make it an experiential course in the cadet squadrons, will cadets be able to apply these concepts better than when they take it in a traditional environment?"

Packard said most science classes have an associated, synced lab course where cadets practice the lessons they learned in the classroom.

"We teach a learning cognition class -- the rat class, as it's affectionately known," he said. "The cadets take coursework, and then they have rats that they train. When they're going to do a specific task ... they learn about it in class, and then they go into the lab and practice what they just learned. That's how most lab classes work."

Packard said that the within the leadership class at the Air Force Academy, they always talk about the Academy as a leadership laboratory.

"But the setup now is that the course cadets are taking is not connected to the laboratory in any way, shape or form," Packard continued. "I may be teaching something about giving feedback here while the cadets are down in their squadrons talking about goal setting."

Because the course is applied in cadet squadrons, instructors can help cadets work through specific leadership lessons and issues, said Dr. Steven Samuels, also a professor in the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department.

"You have different leadership problems in different squadrons," Samuels said. "This lets the squadrons dictate where they go as opposed to the teacher thinking, 'This is probably the optimal way to go,' with optimal meaning the lowest common denominator."

One of the challenges the course faces right now is scheduling, Packard said.

"How do we find that right balance between the idealistic goals of this course and the realities of life at the Air Force Academy?" Packard said. "If the mission elements could all, in our ideal world, create our own schedule, we would dominate cadets' time at the Air Force Academy. We've got to share this space across all of these diverse places that cadets are -- and, by the way, give them time to just be cadets and college students and have time off."

The scheduling efforts are sapping time and mental energy from both cadets and instructors, Samuels said.

"We are spending so much ... on just finding time to meet, we're operating at the lowest possible level right now," Samuels said. "Cadets are suffering. I think they're enjoying the course, but they're suffering in real ways. Our cadets are pretty enthusiastic, but we just keep kicking them in the teeth with stuff like scheduling."

Dr. David LaRivee is an associate professor with the Economics and Geosciences Department, and he sits on the Academy's Pathways to Excellence Committee.

"One of the things we're trying to do is take a look at the schedule and make sure we can create the opportunities for people to offer courses properly," he said. "There are three elements to that: How do you deliver the right focus in the right format at the right time? You can see how that all comes together for this course. The format is that they want to do it by squadron most of the time, but occasionally teaming across squadrons. The focus is about getting the academic experience into the squadron. Time is the element that doesn't let me go as far as I want to go."

The scheduling challenge is daunting across the five cadet squadrons participating in the squadron, LaRivee said.

"We're trying to put more flexibility into the schedule of calls so you can do things like this, because imagine ... trying to do this for everyone who's going to go through the course. You have to have a lot more flexibility."

One proposal to provide that flexibility is to offer about a quarter of traditional course content online or via group lecture and to schedule class and lab time in slots already set aside for military training, Packard said.

"Old, traditional models and ways of education are maybe not the best ways for us to proceed at a service academy," Packard said. "How do we create a process where you can start from an outcome or an end goal or a desired state and work your way back toward it?"

More than 100 cadets are a part of the experimental class, and the Behavioral Science and Leadership Department has begun collecting data, Packard said.

"The test questions on graded reviews are similar so we can minimize performance degradation," he said. "We're surveying the cadets to find out how much they're applying and using this course in their squadrons."

The experiment is scheduled to continue at its current level for another year or two. Depending on the results, the department may submit a curriculum change proposal to the Academy Board to expand the experiment to one of the Academy's four cadet groups. Expansion of the experimental class to the entire Cadet Wing would be three or four years out.

Cadet 1st Class Michael Hychko, the commander of Cadet Squadron 21, said he appreciates the junior cadets' decision to stick with the experiment.

"It is so easy for them to say, I would rather take the cookie-cutter class that's been here for a while, take my grade and go," he said. "But we can't continue with this idea that the squadron is a place where we live and we sleep and that's it."

Cadet 1st Class Katie Albright, a student assistant for the class who is also assigned to CS 21, said the feedback she's received from juniors enrolled in the class has been positive.

"They see the purpose behind it, and I think that combats the cynicism involved with the leadership experience as a whole," she said. "They're finally seeing the connection between the theory and literature and what they're actually supposed to be practicing within the squadron."