Before the students enter the classroom, I write the following "Do Now" on the board:
Communicating clearly is an important skill for scientists. Why is this an important skill for scientists? Write your answer on a piece of binder paper and turn it in.
I use this question to get students thinking about the purposes of communicating in science and in general.
Once their responses are in, I start this lesson by asking, "Have you ever gotten in trouble with your Mom for doing exactly what she told you to do, only to figure out that she meant something else?" and solicit a couple of examples from the class. A question as simple as this one helps to bring students into the lesson as they share common experiences.
This lesson originally appears on Baine, Celeste, and Cathi Cox. "Carbon Copy Creations." Teaching Engineering Made Easy. Eugene, OR: Engineering Education Service Center, 2006. 25-32. Print. as a team-building exercise.
Prior to the lesson, I built a structure out of LEGOs, and prepared one baggie containing the same number and color of blocks I used in my structure for each group of 4 students. I also made sets of name tags to denote roles, using yarn and card-stock with the words builder, observer, active listener and manager (one set for every group).
I divide the class in groups of four. For this activity, I place students in groups numbering them 1-4 and asking them to move to their number group. I want random groups because I want the students to get into the habit of being able to work with anyone in the room. When I have a large class size or an odd number of students, I add a second active listener.
Once they are in groups, I pass out the name-tags and explain the challenge.
"Your group will receive a bag of LEGO blocks. Your challenge is to exactly duplicate my LEGO creation (which is hidden from the students). There are four roles, builder, observer, active listener and manager. Decide now who is taking on each role and place your name-tag around your neck; don't worry, you will switch during the activity.
The observer will go and look at my LEGO creation. That person will observe it for one minute, without talking or handling it and report back to the group. The observer may not touch any of the LEGOs at any time; in fact the observer's hands are to remain behind his/her back at all times. Once the observer returns to the group, he/she will give verbal instructions to the builder; there is no pointing gesturing or touching. The observer may only use words.
The builder has two minutes to assemble my LEGO creation using the instructions given by the observer. The builder is the only person who may touch the LEGOs; He/she is not allowed to speak at any point during the activity, and must follow the directions given by the observer.
The active listener can ask questions to try to clarify the instructions given by the observer to the builder. The active listener may also rephrase the observer's instructions, but may not touch the LEGOs nor use gestures, point to pieces, etc to help the builder.
The manager makes sure all rules are being followed - only person who may touch the LEGOs is the builder, observer and active listener keep hands behind his/her backs at all times, builder does not speak.
At the end of the two minute building period you will switch roles, and repeat the procedure until everyone has taken every role."
I display the role reminders, bring out my own Lego creation and begin the first one minute observation period, followed by the two minute build, and keep going in this manner until every student has taken on every role. My LEGO creation is not disassembled between rotations. This might seem like an advantage since at some point in the rotation, the builders will have actually looked at the structure. However the builder must follow the observer's instructions and may not speak, so even if they know the placement of a piece is incorrect, they cannot take action to correct it.
This activity fosters the skill of clear communication (SP8 - Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information), which the students will then use when developing directions for their own experiments.
One particularly interesting aspect of this lesson is that the most successful groups are the ones where the active listener(s) take an active part. Watch as the listeners in this team go beyond clarifying instructions and attempt to help the observer remember:
After each of the students have taken every role, I ask the students to discuss who was the best at each job. As a group, they must commit, in writing, to their choices by providing specific evidence. This is recorded on the final role commitment form, that they turn in for XP (participation points) before we continue. It is important for me at this point to allow ample time for the discussion and commitment since I am asking the students to provide evidence to defend their choices (Science and Engineering Practice 7 Engaging in Argument from Evidence).
As students are completing this work I am circulating to make sure that the evidence they are providing is specific (____ was the best observer because he/she ______.), and asking the students to clarify their work.
Once final roles have been decided, we do one more round of observing/building with the same time constraints.
Once the final build is accomplished, I have the students write a reflection on the activity. I pass out the carbon copy creations reflection sheet and collect it before the students leave the room.
I do not grade the reflection itself, and just assign XP for completion. However, I read their answers, paying particular attention to "2. Greatest frustrations" in order to get to know my students better.