Thursday, August 11, 2016

An Easy Design Build Challenge (STEM minus the Tech) for the Beginning of the Year

When I was looking for easy ways to kick-start my Digital Literacy classroom, it was a no-brainer to consider STEM activities.  There's absolutely no better way to build teamwork, learn new friends, and get the brain rolling than problem-solving your way through a design challenge. There's only one catch...

School started on Wednesday for us, and iPad roll-out isn't scheduled until Friday afternoon.  There goes the T in STEM...

No worries! I actually found that the following activity was a great way to build the foundational skills we need for the school year ahead.  The teachable moments were absolutely priceless! Below I'll detail the three layers of challenges I presented my students and the lessons we learned in between.  This is a simple, cheap (yay!), and fun way to work in a variety of character building discussions and team-building for your classroom at any time of the year!

*I by no means created this activity. I've seen it floating around for a few years, but I thought it might be worthy of a share.  I think it's amazing how activities can look different from year to year depending on your group of students or circumstances.  Teachers should be willing to share freely and tweak activities to fit their classroom needs! Enjoy!

The Red Solo Stacking Challenge

To get started, I divided my classroom into groups of four or five students depending upon class size.  Each group received a stack of ten red "Solo" cups and one rubber band that had four/five (depending upon group size) 12 inch long strings attached it.  I purposely selected groups so students would be working with a friend and classmates they didn't yet know.  I encourage you to decide what arrangement best fits your classroom needs! Students chose to work on our more traditional tabletops, but the floor or any other hard-surface work space would work just fine.

Challenge One
I then directed groups to select three of the cups for this challenge and push the others to the side.  I feel it is very important when doing STEM or design challenges to give as few directions as possible.  I told the students they were to build a two-story tower out of the cups.  There was only one rule in this challenge.  They could not touch the cups with anything but the string or rubber-band.  If students raised their hand to ask more questions, I simply responded, "You have all the instructions you need for this challenge."  I love how much that drives them crazy. :)

During the challenges, I walk around and observe the groups.

Here are important questions I ask myself as I observe:

How are they working as a team?
Who steps out as the leader?
What interesting or out-of-the-box methods are they trying?
Who seems to be struggling with teamwork/participation/technical skills?

I did not set a certain time for the first challenge.  After all teams were successful, or I had given ample time for all groups to at least have the chance, I called time.  Then we all discussed.  I'll include discussion questions and topics later.

Challenge Two
For this challenge, I upped the anti just a bit.  I asked students to add three cups to their total which was now six cups.  Secondly, I told students they must build a three-story tower with their cups.  Finally, I made it even more difficult by taking away the power of verbal communication.  That's right.  Students were not allowed to talk, whisper, grunt, hum, or otherwise make any noise during this challenge.  This was my favorite of the challenges.  Obvious reasons. ;) Kidding...

What I loved about this challenge was watching the students learn from their mistakes in the first challenge.  Many groups who were unsuccessful in the first round, quickly built their tower despite the communication challenges.

Again, after all groups were successful, we stopped and discussed.

Challenge Three
In this final challenge, I increased the difficulty once again.  All ten cups were now in play, and I asked the students to build the tallest tower possible in five minutes.  Adding the time component now made groups focus more sharply.  I did allow talking during this challenge, but minimized it to whispering only.  This was quite interesting in and of itself.

My favorite part of this challenge was watching the joy on their faces when they achieved success.  I would be working with another group and hear a shout of happiness when another group completed their tower.  At the end of five minutes, I was pleased to see most groups were able to successfully build a great tower!

Again, reflection and discussion was key!

Discussion Questions and Topics

There are so many questions that easily come to mind when observing students.

What was easy? What was difficult?  What would make this challenge easier? Who in your group was the leader?  What would you do differently if doing this challenge again?

A few of the items that came up through our reflections and discussions include:

  • Teamwork
  • The importance of both leaders and followers
  • Noise level (What's appropriate for this activity? What's your learning preference?)
  • Perserverance
  • Learning from Mistakes
  • Getting out of our comfort zones
  • Redefining success
  • Following directions
I'll leave you with a brief video of this activity in action.  Be sure to check the blog often over the next few months.  I have plenty of amazing students to share with you!


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