Penn State's Huck Institutes announce second annual Huck/OVPR Olympics July 23

Faculty, staff and student competitors will vie for Olympic gold on the lawn of the Millennium Science Complex

Participants in the wagon relay event at the 2013 Huck Olympics at Penn State. Credit: Peter Hudson / Penn StateCreative Commons

Editor's note: This story from 2014 was mistakenly run in the April 14, 2017, issue of Penn State Today. This event is not scheduled this year. Our sincere apologies for any confusion.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State faculty, staff and student competitors from the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Huck Institutes and the Materials Research Institute will vie for Olympic gold July 23 on the lawn of the Millennium Science Complex on the University Park campus.

With private industry currently spending over $7 billion annually on training and leadership development, it represents the largest sector of investment into training and leadership development today.

“Corporations discovered over 20 years ago that it was more cost-effective to develop leaders than it was to rehire and train new managers,” said Huck Institutes administrative director Wendy Buterbaugh. “As a result, many companies have launched internal professional development programs to train employees on team and leadership development, and as a way of encouraging competitiveness, collaboration and innovation.”


“Working in private industry,” Buterbaugh said, “I was doing two to three weeks a year of mandatory training in team building and leadership development. When I joined Penn State, I noticed a lack of communication and cohesion among the faculty, staff, students and administration, and I wanted to bring those concepts of team building and leadership development from my background in industry to my new work in academia.”

After working at the College of the Liberal Arts, which also holds an annual Olympics for their faculty, staff and students, Buterbaugh said she decided to take the idea to the next level at the Huck Institutes by building on professional development and using scientific props and concepts in the events — even including a few water activities strictly for fun and as a nice way to cool off on a hot summer day.

A participant in the water toss event at the 2013 Huck Olympics Credit: Peter Hudson / Penn StateCreative Commons

"When I came to Huck in 2012," she explained, "I started working with our director, Peter Hudson, to create programs that would improve communication and create an environment to build relationships between our faculty and staff. One of those ideas was to start an Olympic games and invite teams to participate — with the goal of ultimately transforming Huck from a group of individuals to an organization built on team concepts."

"Following last year’s event," added Hudson, "I immediately noticed an exceptional change in the participants — a strong bond that developed between the staff, faculty and grad students who attended, which has definitely fulfilled my goal of building a more unified organization. I believe these Olympics have become something that everyone now talks about and anticipates all year long."

"Last year's Huck Olympics were a fun afternoon of teamwork and competition that ultimately helped to further develop and solidify my relationships with colleagues in and outside the Huck," said Huck graduate programs coordinator Paula Brown. "I know I'm not the only one looking forward to another round of stiff competition this year!"


The inaugural Huck Olympics featured competition in nine events among nine teams from the Huck Institutes and the Materials Research Institute (MRI).

After the awards ceremony, Buterbaugh said, the participants unanimously requested that the event be held annually, and as a result, she felt inclined to extend the invitation to compete to the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) at Penn State.

“These types of activities build camaraderie and foster collaboration between researchers, and across institutes and academic units," said Neil Sharkey, interim vice president for research at Penn State. "The OVPR is happy to lend additional support to expand the program. It should be fun!”

Participants in the marble relay event at the 2013 Huck Olympics Credit: Peter Hudson / Penn StateCreative Commons

Now this year’s Olympics have grown to include 16 teams of post-docs, staff, faculty and students competing in a total of 13 events.

“We had set an initial goal of having 15 teams compete this year,” added Buterbaugh, “and we had already met that goal 30 days before the deadline. We are projecting to have over 150 people participate — either competing on teams or volunteering as scorekeepers and timers. I have to say that the enthusiasm from the staff and faculty has been absolutely amazing.”


In planning the events, Buterbaugh said, her team worked to pull ideas from different team and leadership activities and “repurpose them relative to the scientific community,” but without alienating staff — essentially incorporating common scientific practices, such as pipetting, that can be performed at any skill level, even by non-scientists.

Also, she noted, the activities are supplied and funded entirely through faculty and staff contributions: "Whatever people have chosen to donate from their homes or garages, we've incorporated into our events," she said.

One featured event, known as the “turkey baster,” is designed to allow teams to practice problem solving and critical thinking. The goal is for the five team members, each using a turkey baster, to “pipette” as much water as possible across a series of five beakers, one beaker at a time.

Another event, the blindfolded obstacle course, Buterbaugh explained, is modeled after a team development exercise that focuses on communication and trust. Each team competes with four blindfolded members who must take verbal directions from their one fellow team member who is not blindfolded and whose challenge is to guide the rest of the team through the obstacle course as quickly as possible. This, Buterbaugh says, requires the blindfolded teammates to trust their leader and listen clearly for directions, and emphasizes the importance of clear communication.

Participants in the blindfolded relay event at the 2013 Huck Olympics Credit: Peter Hudson / Penn StateCreative Commons

“There are many different approaches teams can take,” she added, “but those that work together to strategize have the most success. Although each team has a captain, these events allow for sharing of that leadership role and utilizing each team member’s individual strengths.”


“Leadership, team cohesion, and critical thinking are just a few of the core competencies that we want all Huck staff, faculty and graduate students to develop,” Buterbaugh explained. “By exposing staff to these concepts, we can help to develop them into future leaders and better managers. For faculty, this is a way of training useful skills outside the research environment. And for graduate students, this is an opportunity to develop soft skills that will help them in their careers — regardless of whether they stay in academia or move on to private industry.”

“You know something is successful when people talk about it throughout the year," she said. "After last year’s Olympics, people openly displayed their winning medals and talked about their successes, failures and lessons learned. Making this happen has transformed Huck by building relationships among our faculty, staff, students and collaborators from MRI in a way that, when I first came here, I didn’t think was possible.”

Last Updated April 14, 2017