The bags of plastic parts and shiny screws might have been many things: something you wear on your head, one student guessed. A pen holder, said another.
But the sum of the parts was more than a classroom puzzle for Virginia Commonwealth University graduate students.
“You’re going to build eight hands that will go on eight different people and change their families,” said Todd Demorest, who oversaw a recent team-building lesson for students in the VCU School of Business’ fast-track executive program for a master’s in information systems.
The prosthetic hands will help children maimed by land mines — about 2,000 accidents occur each month from the estimated 100 million devices planted in 60 countries.
The idea to help children who have lost hands to land mines came from industrial engineer Ernie Meadows and his wife, Marj, whose daughter Ellen was killed in a car accident. Meadows designed the prosthetic hand as a memorial for his daughter and has turned the project over to Rotary International.
Rotary works with Odyssey Teams Inc., a California-based company that offers philanthropic team-building exercises for businesses.
Demorest, a facilitator with Odyssey, said that by creating value for others, these workshops develop teamwork and leadership skills in a way that the typical ropes courses and beach volleyball games can’t.
“This is real,” he said. “It’s not like a metaphor anymore.”
The Helping Hands workshop showed the business students that their goals should be “something bigger than just building a product and making a buck,” said John Testament, whose Glen Allen-based RoadMaps Consulting helped coordinate the VCU event.
He said the workshop also illustrated the need to avoid what can happen within a company when employees get “siloed” working on their own projects and “never look over the cubicle wall to see if they can help others.”
That was a focus of the workshop. Students were divided into teams, but it wasn’t a race to see which one could assemble the hand first. Team members were encouraged to stop and help other groups.
“Were we not able to collaborate with others, we would not have been able to put it together correctly,” said student Kimion Walker, whose team discovered it was missing a piece.
At the start of the event, the teams didn’t know their goal, although one student did guess they were building a mechanical hand.
When their work was done, the students saw of video of children receiving prosthetic hands. An artificial limb would cost about $3,000, according to Odyssey, but these hands are given to the children for free.
The VCU students decorated wooden boxes that will hold the hands they made and posed for pictures that will be given to the children.
It was the first time VCU has offered the Helping Hands workshop, said Jean B. Gasen, an associate professor and faculty adviser in the VCU information-systems department.
Students have told her the exercise put the challenges they face into a much different perspective, she said, and that the world would be a better place “if people could treat one another with the compassion that they felt on that day.”
The workshop was part of the orientation for students in the 14-month master’s program, and its lesson struck a chord with Walker.
“The key to effective leadership is to serve,” she said.
The current economic crisis shows the need for leaders with a strong sense of values, she added, noting that in the Wall Street meltdown, the nation is seeing how “capability without integrity can be dangerous.”