Help me brainstorm some ideas for a schoolwide challenge in my middle school.
July 31, 2008 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Help me brainstorm some ideas for a schoolwide challenge in my middle school.

I have an hour per week for about 8 weeks to program in my middle school. I want to break the kids up into small groups and have each group work on a designated problem/challenge, with the ultimate goal being to devise the best solution to the problem/challenge.

We are a small urban school with very little resources ($) but a population of students struggling academically who would thrive with a real-world challenge.

The students need to be occupied in a substantive way for the 8 weeks (8 hours) but the project can't be so large that it can't be done in 8 hours.

Any teachers out there with suggestions?
posted by archimago to Education (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm not a teacher, but our school did something like this every year.

The one I remember was designing and building a small vehicle from whatever materials we scrounge from home. The goal was to see which team's vehicle could transport an egg the farthest distance using only a single, standard rubber band for propulsion.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 12:56 PM on July 31, 2008

Popsicle stick bridge is always a big hit. See which one can hold the most weight. You can stretch it out by making each team submit a design, then a test scale model with toothpicks, then a redesign, then a final model. If it's just 8 hours total a design and a final bridge might be enough. Then you have a day where you suspend weights from each bridge until it fails and see which bridge holds up the most weight. I entered a contest like this as a kid and although I did it solo it was still fun.
posted by GuyZero at 1:05 PM on July 31, 2008

On the same theme as WinnipegDragon, egg drop is fun and cheap. The kids need to drop an egg from a window/balcony at the school, but can build any kind of contraption that will allow their egg to survive the drop. You can use really basic supplies and be very creative. Egg cartons, packaging materials to secure the egg, garbage bags make -great- parachutes, scissors, tape, string, paper etc. Most items should be easily accessible to the basic classroom, and items can be volunteered from home.

Over the eight weeks, the first session would be a description of the problem and rules and a planning session for the kids. Then for the next six weeks they would get chances to build and test. The last week of course, would be the final drop itself, and see if the eggs survive.
posted by billy_the_punk at 1:20 PM on July 31, 2008

I know of some places having great success letting the kids tackle a problem in their community or school they see. For middle school and only 8 hours, you would probably scale this back a bit. Some ideas might be initiating school recycling and deciding how to use the revenue, designing a mentoring program within the school, designing a "resource space" for things that effect kids in that type or urban setting, etc.
posted by lacedback at 1:23 PM on July 31, 2008

Something with a big theatrical last day.

A race:
build a pinewood derby car
build a boat that will be wind-propelled
build a rubber band powered car

Egg drop is good, and you can make an extra big production of it by having the principal come in and drop the eggs from the roof of the school.

With all of these, team names, themes, decorations on the car/egg/etc are also fun.
If you're doing something with a big theatrical last day, be sure you build in a test day if your kids will be really disappointed if theirs doesn't work.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:35 PM on July 31, 2008

Egg Drop
Ramp Car (which car can roll the farthest off of a given starter ramp)
Balsa Wood Bridge
Balsa Wood Cantilever
Balsa Wood Tower
Rube Goldberg Device (points for the most number of steps or using the most different types of actuation)
Mousetrap-powered car (for distance)
Building a model of the school out of a given type of material

For some of the "challenge" ones you might even be able to have two competitions with a little lesson in the middle (what did we learn on that first part, how can we use that to make our next try better?)

Also, good rules are essential for some of these. You don't want kids "breaking" the rules and winning as a result.
posted by milqman at 2:28 PM on July 31, 2008

Egg drop should have some constraints (speaking as a past middle school (and high school ... oh the nerdery) egg drop winner):

1. Teams are good, so that you can pair younger students with older students. Teams of 4 is about the max if you want the members to actually work. You can assign teams, but it's probably faster /easier / dare-I-say funner to let the students do it themselves. And the team name, banner, colors is also a good idea.

2. Materials list should be *short*. 4 pieces of 8.5x11 paper. 10 soda straws. 4 rubber bands. 1 garbage bag (which could be twisted up into string, made into a parachute, or used for padding). 1 sheet of cardboard (if you can easily and quickly source this... or leave it off).

3. Make the test day *2 weeks* before the real contest. By that point, each time should be set (ish) on the design and so won't be stealing ideas (too much). But teams can debug their devices in the following week. Then the final contest is the week. To extend the excitement, do the drops in heats where winners move on. If you go this route however, the devices will be different... having a re-usable device emphasizes different design criteria (versus 1-time use / lightest weight devices).

4. Another twist is how to settle the winner (saying you need one). Lightest weight is great, because students can design and weigh and think about shaving weight and stuff. The only problem is that the lightest weight egg droppers will survive a single drop, but probably not a second. So either they need to be repairable, or there can be only a single drop. The other route is to do the full "death match" -- have heats and a quarter finals if necessary and then let the 2 (or 3 or 4) finals drop their eggs in the devices until one has a catastrophic failure.

5. Put down a tarp (that can be rinsed down a sewer drain). Rotten eggs smell.
posted by zpousman at 2:43 PM on July 31, 2008

Some other sciency ideas:
build a boat that can hold the most amount of pennies
a marble roller-coaster

artsy ideas:
a skit or play on some school-wide theme
a banner or model or some sort of sculpture

Check Odyssey of the Mind for other challenging ideas.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 3:22 PM on July 31, 2008

8 weeks is probably too short, but what about urban farming?

Start with whatever material they want not exceeding a certain number of food calories. At the end, there are 2 prizes; 1) the greatest percentage increase in calories grown (minus any calories from food that you dump into the system*) and 2) the most improved taste between the starting material and the ending material.

Starting materials could be seeds, chlorella (algae), fertilized shrimp roe, &c&c.

*"free" energy like sunlight/ambient light or ambient/waste heat wouldn't count, but something like feed or grow lights would.
posted by porpoise at 3:26 PM on July 31, 2008

You may want to consider that if you have 8 1-hour chunks, you have functionally much less than 8 hours for content. I teach college students and schedule content for about 80% of the available time. Expect to spend 5-10 minutes of each hour for housekeeping like roll, moving desks, waiting for tardy folks; 5 minutes for preparing for the content by getting out materials, groups talking to get back on the same page in the project; the last 10 minutes of class are "mental check out time" because they're thinking about the next class, the bus ride home, etc., and so won't make good decisions; you may also have to account for clean-up time for a messy project. So it's more like 8 40-minute sessions (or 5 hours of actual work time), which might help in scaling a project that is achieveable.

I think the ideas above are great, and if you've not heard of Odyssey of the Mind or Destination Imagination I'd suggest checking them out: they're similarly-styled group problem solving competitions. I know they will have tons of examples of problems if you can get your hands on one of their books for team coaches.
posted by holyrood at 6:09 PM on July 31, 2008

Mini golf course projects!
posted by maloon at 6:26 PM on July 31, 2008

Thanks everyone!
posted by archimago at 5:50 AM on August 1, 2008

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