An Introduction to Problem Solving - The Swing Challenge

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SWBAT work collaboratively to complete a simple "engineering" task and they will describe challenges and successes.

Big Idea

Problem solving has as much to do with tenacity and process as it does with possessing a specific skill set.


10 minutes

This activity achieves a dual purpose.  It allows students to build their collaborative group skills while allowing me to make some initial observations about interpersonal and group dynamics as well as their ability to approach a constrained design task.  This design task does not solve a real problem, because people are not really 2 inches tall and made of plastic.  It does introduce students to the idea of constraints in an enjoyable and meaningful way appropriate for the start of the year.

I place students in groups of 5 and give each group a small bucket of materials.  I choose readily available materials because this is intended to be an easy to implement, beginning of the year activity.

In this example, I chose pattern blocks, a plastic cup, some pipe cleaners, and a Polly Pocket doll.

I tell them that the goal is to build a swing that will hold the doll up off the ground using only the materials I give them.  They are instructed to make the swing as high as they can, which gives them a competitive goal.  The swing doesn’t have to be able to move.

I asked if there are any questions and at the start of the year the questions usually involve them asking for a repeat of what I already said, which I gently point out.  Over time, this helps them develop the ability to focus in more completely on directions.  


Group Activity

45 minutes

My primary role in this activity is as a facilitator, as far as the students are concerned.  As I walk around the room and confer with the groups about their possible approaches to this very simple design task, I ask guiding questions to keep them focused on the objective "Does the color of the pipe cleaner matter when you're considering whether or not the swing will be strong enough?"  I also model cooperative language.  If, for example, I hear, "No, no, NO!  Not like THAT!" I might say, "Try this. Oh no, I think that might not work because... Can we try....?"

Additionally, as I circle around the room, I am also taking anecdotal notes. (Here is a blank form if you would like to use it: anecdotal notes for the Build a Swing activity.)  I take notes like this at least once a week because it gives me a snapshot of what students were doing in a given activity that helps me build a more complete understanding of their academic and social needs.  

Additionally, I have my English Language Learners and also those students who have been recently reclassified as Fluent English Proficient noted on my page to I can subtly make a point of stopping by and informally giving them some support at whatever level they need.  Some need sentence structure assistance, some might need support with regular and irregular verb conjugations, and some may need verb tense assistance.  These are, of course, only examples but are scenarios that I find occur consistently with my bilingual students.

Here are some examples of what I learn from Intro to Simple Problem Solving tasks such as this one:





5 minutes

At the end of this activity, I call on volunteers to share what their group accomplished.  I ask one or more of these questions:

  • What went well for your group?
  • What did your group struggle with?
  • If you could have one additional material, what would it be?
  • What was the best part about working in a group?
  • What was the most challenging aspect of working with a group?  (NO names!)