Stony Brook students participate in Project Adventure, an obstacle course that promotes an active lifestyle and camaraderie. PHOTO COURTESY OF ERIN MAURNO

Students and faculty can now swing on ropes, balance on a massive seesaw and make “moo, moo,” noises at their colleagues right on campus, thanks to a challenge course that opened on Oct. 15 at the Walter J. Hawrys Campus Recreation Center. 

The Project Adventure Challenge Course is not only mentally and physically demanding; it aims to improve the academic and social lives of participants through team building and low rope elements — various tasks that are placed throughout the course, according to the overseers of the program. The two-hour course brings teams together by getting them out of their comfort zones through participation in leadership activities. 

On warmer days, students and faculty can find facilitators conducting the course behind the Campus Recreation Center, near the parking lot of the Long Island Rail Road, in a large field surrounded by trees. Other times, facilitators will hold sessions inside or visit individual departments.

We’ll do something where you have to go in alphabetical order based on your animal noise. So if I have a cow, I said  ‘Moo, moo,’ and if you have a chicken you said, ‘Pock, pock, pock,’” Marie Turchiano, the associate director of Campus Recreation, said. “I have to figure out if that’s a ‘p’ and I’m an ‘m,’ I have to get in my alphabetical order.”

Turchiano, who is in charge of the program, said that certain aspects of the course — like being blindfolded or making noises at other people — can make participants feel uncomfortable. In her eyes, getting over that apprehension is part of the learning experience.

“People are afraid, and they don’t want to lose control,” she said. “We’re trying to build that trust so when they succeed, they feel good about themselves and good about each other.”

To perform the course, all teams must pay a specific rate for the session. The rate is based on their group size — any team from the university and the greater Stony Brook area can join. Those interested in participating can fill out a form on the Student Affairs website. Rates range from $45 per hour for a group of 12 or fewer partipants from Stony Brook to $330 per hour for 25 or more participants from outside the university. Turchiano said that the money from the course pays for maintenance fees, for props that are used in the activities and for the salaries of the facilitators who teach it.

But, since its opening, the course has not had an official team pay to participate yet. All of the teams that have participated so far, including the Stony Brook softball team, the Stony Brook sailing team, the Harriet Tubman Hall resident assistants and students and teaching assistants (TAs) from the Mental Health and Wellness Peer Education (CHILL) classes, were invited by Turchiano and her colleagues for trial purposes.

Erin Maurno, one of the two course facilitators, and a graduate student in the higher education administration program at Stony Brook, said that among some of the teams who participated in the trial, she has noticed a definite difference in demeanor from the start of the program to the end.

“A couple of the groups we had were classes and they comprised of people that did not know each other, were not friends. They would go to the class and then would leave and didn’t really talk, they were very uncomfortable, stood by themselves, just kind of waited for us to prompt them to do something,” Maurno said. “Towards the end they were chatting with each other, cracking jokes, getting more into it and helping their teammates.”

Junaid Mahmood, a senior sociology major, said that the challenge course encouraged his peers from CHILL — a two-semester course and internship that engages students in conversations about mental health — to be less shy and act more openly in speaking with one another.

“Project Adventure was a fun course,” he said. “There were a lot of puzzles and activities where we had to work with one another. We learned each other’s names. It broke the ice and brought us together.”

Maurno said that a part of the appeal is that participants like that they can perform “weird” activities with their peers. “People like the fact that we’re asking them to get uncomfortable and we’re asking them to be a little bit weirder with their teammates, because everyone is a little bit weird,” Maurno said. “It gives them that outlet to kind of [start] getting comfortable with their teammates and starting that process.”

Participants might have to lift each other off the ground or figure out how different cards in stacks share a common theme. Turchiano said the possibilities are endless and that different activities are created depending on what group members want to improve on.

And while participants have the option of opting out of tasks, Turchiano stressed that the activities help bring out even the quietest of people who are sometimes ignored in a team.

“Sometimes in a team we’ll point out ‘Did you see that person who had the right answer but no one was listening?’” she said. “We make them self-aware of how they contributed to the group and that you can be a follower, but still a leader.”

Justin Newman, a senior health science major, and a peer educator and TA for CHILL, said the course made him more aware of who his students were.

“I would highly recommend this course to any leader on campus,” he said. “The way they ran the ropes course was extremely professional. I really like that as a TA, I was able to learn my students’ names through name activities.”

The Project Adventure Challenge Course is the building block for a small outdoor recreation program that the Campus Recreation Center created a decade ago. The original program offered kayaking, skiing and whitewater rafting, and now only offers two of the three activities, skiing and whitewater rafting.

It first started when Turchiano and her colleagues from the Campus Recreation Center attended a national Project Adventure Challenge School, and thought the program would be beneficial to bring onto campus.

“We used to do all these rope courses, we would do group games and it would build camaraderie among the staff,” Turchiano said. “So we decided, ‘You know what, why not bring it here to campus where everyone can benefit and we don’t have to pay all this money to go do it, when we can do it ourselves.’”

Every course is catered to the specific group, and activities are based on the group’s needs and what the facilitators learn from previous sessions. Facilitators have all been trained on the ins and outs of the course, including safety measures. They are still learning more about the course’s potential as they go along.

“There [are] workshops all over the country that we’re looking into, attending, there’s online webinars that we’ve attended or will be attending,” Maurno said. “But I think the best training I’ve had so far has been jumping right in, doing the workshops and getting the experience on the ground.”

While the course is open to both the campus community and the greater surrounding Stony Brook community, Turchiano said her focus is to concentrate on getting teams from the campus community first.

“It’s fun,” Turchiano said. “You’re going to work on your leadership skills, self-confidence, build camaraderie, do things outside of the box, and it gives you a safe environment to do that.”