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One of these labs is not like the other by Stanley G.

GELlin' like a felon

The scene: Friday morning, about 9:10am
Me: *Sits down at table with a bunch of people I don’t know*
Instructor: “Ok, each team should select a leader. Once you have, leaders, raise your hand”
Me: *turns to team* I’ll do it! *team does not protest, I raise hand*
Instructor: “Alright, you have a packet in front of you. You have 30 minutes to complete the task inside that packet with your team.”
Me: *looks around, blinks confusedly, locates packet*
Instructor: “Go!”

And that was my introduction to the first day of GEL.

The Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program is designed to help the next generation of engineers (like me!) build leadership and problem solving skills so we can effectively deal with real world situations. Did you take one of those leadership training day camps in high school as part of a club you were in? Or one of those hands-on engineering mini classes where you built a rocket? Think of GEL as those two things put together, on steroids, enhanced with access to a network of former students who have gone through the program and industry professionals who are very interested in hiring people like you.

When I found out about the program last year, the first thought was: “An opportunity to improve myself and my (moderately non-existent) network?? How could I not do this?!”

Needless to say I’m pretty excited about it so far. I think the unique thing about GEL as opposed to other leadership improvement programs I’ve done in the past (courtesy of high school marching band) is the fact that you actually do get to practice in real situations all these skills that we’re getting trained in and feedback on. At least for me, I have trouble understanding anything until I actually do it, so it’s refreshing to have that opportunity to practice right then and there in a situation that’s fully applicable, rather than not running into the chance to do things until weeks afterward and forgetting how to quite approach it. Getting that practice is the core reason why I wanted to be involved with GEL.

I like to think it’s going well so far; the first challenge was to build, within budget and under time pressure, a bridge out of paper and paperclips that spanned the Charles River (a normal 11-inch sheet of paper, lengthwise) and supported 20 dense hex nuts. I was able to delegate successfully the task of keeping track of the budget and our group quickly settled on a design. It was a pretty smooth process until the end, when we wanted to then optimize the design of the bridge.

Now, I’m a news editor for The Tech (MIT’s newspaper, completely student run), shouldn’t I be good at optimizing things if this is what I do with people’s writing every week? It’s actually a very different thing editing a physical structure compared to words on a page. In particular, there’s not an undo button when dealing with real world items; if I’m editing an article and I see something wrong, I’ll change it, but if I don’t like the change, I can always go back and undo it. If the bridge falls and one of our components breaks or rips, we have to replace it, which costs “money” out of our budget, which we may or may not have. In the end, it requires that you think many steps ahead, something that I am not completely accustomed to doing.

When we got to the optimization step, we struggled to reach a unified stance. We did something (using paper clips to secure the roadway to the supports in the water), but it ate up a lot more time than it needed to. The good thing about the whole exercise was that we successfully finished with plenty of time to spare and I got feedback on what I can improve on for next time, which is exactly what I joined GEL to get!

Slowly but surely I’m gaining the skills I need to improve. This Friday I met the team I’m going to be permanently working with for the semester, and it made me even more excited to continue on the adventure!

A taste of something new is exactly what the doctor ordered! Never fear though, I won’t only talk about GEL here, you’ll hear about my regular life too. Next time :)