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Students experience leadership—MIT style



With four students to direct, a deadline looming, a tight budget and a bridge to build, Sarah Comstock was thrust into leadership without formal introductions.

“I don’t know what I’m doing! You’ve got to help me through this,” said Comstock, a sophomore in computational and applied mathematics, to the four students seated with her around the work bench in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen.


They were among the 34 students who on Election Day took part in a leadership challenge conducted by Leo McGonagle, executive director of the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program and a former career officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“The project itself is less important than leadership development and team dynamics. Engineers need to learn how to work together, how to lead, how to plan, how to delegate authority,” said McGonagle, whose visit to Rice University was sponsored by the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL).

“This is a great opportunity for our students, to get the wisdom and experience of somebody like Leo McGonagle. He brings the real world into the class room,” said David Niño, Professor in the Practice of Engineering Leadership at RCEL.


Others in Comstock’s group were Yenny Chandra, a fourth-year graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, and Thor Walker, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. The other members were exchange students, both undergraduates in chemical engineering: Vitor Braga from Brazil and Laura Varela from Argentina.

The challenge was called “Deliver!” With two plastic-foam blocks, 25 sheets of paper, four pencils and 25 paperclips, the students had 30 minutes to assemble a  bridge spanning a 14-inch “river,” and capable of supporting 10 “trucks” in the form of ½” hex nuts.  But that wasn’t all: Every piece of building material had a price (40 units per pencil etc.) and the group could accumulate units for every minute the bridge was operational and supporting trucks. It was to their advantage to work quickly and finish the project under the time and material cost budget.

They brainstormed for five minutes or so and decided to build pylons with the white copy paper (10 units per sheet), and reserve the yellow card stock (40 units per sheet) for the bridge.

“Are we trying to show how strong it is?” Walker asked, and Braga replied, “No, we’re just trying to build it, get it done.” Comstock’s group completed the task with three minutes to spare, at a net cost of 50 units, supporting X trucks (hex nuts), putting them somewhere in the middle of the seven groups. Each group was observed by an RCEL-trained apprentice leader. Comstock’s group was observed by Adrian Yao, a junior in material science, who added: “It might have been helpful to set up a timeline and delegate the roles more efficiently.”

“We went for durability,” Comstock said. “There was no wrestling between the team members, but I think we were too focused on functionality, and not enough on the costs and the deadline. I could have been a little more decisive.”

“Sometimes it’s difficult for young engineers to transition from ideation to action. A leader leads. It’s common in college for aspiring leaders to hesitate. It’s so collegial,” McGonagle said.  The MIT GEL program conducts engineering leadership labs every week. This allows students to be leaders and followers numerous times during the semester, resulting in significant growth in their abilities to lead.

McGonagle was a lieutenant colonel and served as department chair and professor of military science and leadership of the Army ROTC program at MIT. He led troops in combat during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and in peace-enforcement operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Among his awards was the Bronze Star Medal. He was a paratrooper and Army Ranger (and of course, a leader) before joining the MIT GEL program as Executive Director.