Cadets say Adventure Based Learning program is a success

By Jennifer Spradlin, U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. –The preliminary results are in on Adventure Based Learning, and it’s scoring high marks from cadets and Academy leadership.

The Center for Character Leadership and Development launched the hands-on challenge this summer for cadets entering their sophomore year to experiment with leadership and decision making skills in a dynamic, outdoor environment.

Of the 1,105 students who went through ABL, only three cadets were medically disqualified and unable to complete the course. Top performing teams hiked more than 50 miles in little more than 26 hours as they acquired points for land navigation and accepting risk while under a strict timeline for course completion. The average team hiked 30 miles during the same time frame. Cadets also challenged their limitations and fears while navigating rope obstacles.

According to anonymous cadet feedback, ABL provided “everyone the opportunity to share ideas and contribute to the task at hand, regardless of group size or who was involved.”

Another cadet wrote, “I felt very well connected with my squadron and nobody was every excluded, targeted, or left out in my experience. We all pulled through the tough parts by relying on each other.”

Based on initial CCLD research, cadets who participated in the course showed statistically significant improvement in emotional intelligence.

“ABL achieved our desired outcomes and even surprised us with its effectiveness [in developing emotional intelligence]. Research shows the more emotionally intelligent [an Airmen] is, the less likely they are to lie, cheat or steal,” said Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, program lead. “Emotionally intelligent leaders, I believe, lead with more integrity and are less likely to abuse their power or their subordinates.” 

The program launch was met with some outside criticism due to the incorporation of adventure into its name. Marshall said the word adventure spoke to the unknown and empowered cadets to tackle problems without a single, “right” solution.

“Part of being a resilient Airmen is being comfortable while operating in the unknown and having strategies you have honed at the Academy that enable you to excel in the unknown,” he said. “I hope all the cadets see their careers as an exciting adventure.”

Marshall said the CCLD is working closely with the other mission partners to incorporate aspects of the training into future summer programming.

Here's Jennifer Spradlin's initial story on the program: 

Zeyon Lyons and his teammates, all Air Force Academy cadets, were hungry.

A simple miscommunication meant they missed the breakfast window at one of many checkpoints scattered across Academy grounds for the culminating exercise of Adventure Based Learning, an outdoor, multi-mile, 30-hour team challenge.

“On the whole, our team had a good attitude,” Lyons said. “We tried to stay positive and talk through mistakes rather than placing blame on each other. [This situation] taught us the importance of having a plan and getting everyone on the same page.”

The challenge was developed and prototyped by a team from the Center for Character Leadership and Development. An academy-wide integrative program, ABL involves partnership with multiple agencies and augments other training offered during a cadet’s sophomore summer. The challenge features academics to teach interpersonal skills and leadership concepts, a ropes course to experiment with those ideas, and a team challenge to put them into practice. The lessons learned by cadets and CCLD staff during ABL are shared with Airmen across the installation.

“Research in how cadets learn best shows classroom lectures are very low in the effectiveness when compared to an on-the-job training model,” said Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, program lead. “[ABL] fits the cadet’s desire for more choice and risk versus reward in their training while also getting them outside in physical and mentally challenging scenarios.”

Marshall said ABL obstacles are designed to be completed in multiple ways and cadets are encouraged to experiment.

“If we are going to build innovative leaders, then we need to give them programs where there are many, many ways to solve a problem,” he said. “In ABL, there are multiple opportunities to fail and try again. Even when they succeed, we will change the rules and make the task more difficult to expose the cadets to the concept of process improvement.”

During the team challenge, cadets must reach five points and can complete 90 optional waypoints, with incentives ranging from better food to more points. All teams are required to finish in a set window or lose their earned points. Teams that finish first are not necessarily the winner, reflecting as Marshall described, the need to inspire the cadets to do more than the minimum.

“To be the best Air Force in the world, we can’t just do the status quo and the minimum,” he said. “By pushing yourself and finding a way to do that as team, that’s how greatness happens.”

Multiple cadets said the terrain, weather, and distance were their biggest challenges during the team race. The ABL is designed to build self-confidence and foster a team mentality course instructors hope cadets rely on during their careers as officers.

“There were times when I wanted to quit,” said Cadet 3rd Class Logan Mann. “But I wanted to be there for my team, be someone they could rely on and trust, so I just kept pushing through the pain.”

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