Scientists Collaborate

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SWBAT identify and create examples and non-examples of collaboration, and effectively collaborate with their peers to complete a shared task.

Big Idea

Scientists must work together and share ideas in order to construct knowledge and develop deeper understanding. There are certain guidelines all scientists must adhere to in order to collaborate peacefully and productively.


5 minutes

I start the lesson by projecting the sports images and allowing the students about a minute to view them. As they view the image, I pass out the Venn diagram. After a minute has passed, I ask the students to brainstorm a list of similarities and differences between the images that are projected, using the Venn diagram.

This lesson has students using the skill of identifying and comparing similarities and differences, and these pictures are a relevant way to activate this thinking. Venn Diagrams are an authentic graphical representation of similarities and differences, they are easy to use, and because we have used a Venn diagram before and students have also used them in prior grades, I did not need to review the purpose of this organizer. You may need to discuss how to use this document if students have not been exposed to it before.

I start a timer for 3 minutes, and allow students that time to list any similarities / differences they can think of. While they are writing, I draw a large T-chart on the board with the titles, "Similarities" and "Differences".  After the timer goes off, we spend about a minute sharing some of our ideas as a class, while I record them on the board in the T-chart.

I prompt the students to place their Venn diagrams aside for a while, letting them know we will come back to it later in the lesson.

Explore - Teacher Set-up

10 minutes

I direct the students to their science journals, where we have previously glued in the "What do Scientists Do?" chart. I direct their attention to the section entitled, "Scientists Collaborate". I set a timer for one minute and ask them to "Turn and Talk" to their shoulder partner, explaining what they think this means and how it pertains to science. After giving them time to discuss with their partner, I call on students to share their thoughts with the class. As a student shares their thoughts, I randomly call on another student to paraphrase what that student has said and to provide a response, starting with, "I agree because...",  "I agree and want to add...",  or " I disagree, because...". (These discussion frames are posted in my room.)

After soliciting several responses, I direct students' attention to the slideshow and have them copy the definition of collaboration on their What do scientists do? chart. This is a resource that we will build on throughout this entire unit, until we have a complete picture of what "scientists do".

Going through the remaining slides, we decide whether each image represents collaboration, using a thumbs up, thumbs down approach. I call on random students to explain their thinking, using evidence from the picture and relating it to the definition of collaboration.

I explain to the students that we will complete a series of challenges today to help us learn what it means to collaborate. I start by asking the students who has ever heard of cup stacking. I play  the video clip of the cup stack challenge to help build background knowledge for students who are unfamiliar with this activity.

After viewing the short clip, I ask students if they think this is a collaborative activity. Most students will say "no", and they would be correct, as the video shows one girl completing the activity alone. I explain that our first challenge today will be to participate in our own cup stacking challenge - with one exception. We will collaborate to stack our cups.

Explore - Student Practice

20 minutes

The rules of the challenge are pretty simple - students (in groups of 4) will start with 10 cups, all stacked in one pile. They will need to transfer the cups from one pile into a pyramid (see below). Then, they will need to deconstruct the pyramid and place the cups back into a pile again. Students will have 15 minutes to try to complete this task, but the first team to complete is the challenge winner.

How groups are selected is really a judgement call. I usually place different types of stickers on Post-It notes and pass them out. Students have to find three classmates who have a matching sticker. This makes grouping completely random, which I like to do, especially at the beginning of the year as we are still building a classroom community.

Students will think this is a very simple task, until you share out the guidelines. I always state them in scientific terms, so that students will start to see the connections between the tasks they are completing and how they relate to science.



1. Scientists often have limited tools and limited knowledge.

What I say:  When scientists are collaborating on a topic, they have a certain set of tools and background knowledge that will allow them to do their jobs. Unfortunately, they don't always have every fact or every tool they need. They have to use what is available to them in order to get the job done.

What this means to the students:  Each group will have the following tools - and only these tools -  to help them complete their task:

  • 10 Solo or other plastic cups
  • 1 rubber band 
  • 4 strings (each cut about 24 inches long) 
  • 1 hand (Their other hand must remain behind their back. This represents the knowledge they do not yet have as they begin to tackle a scientific task.)


2. Scientists have specialties

What I say: Scientists, such as biologists, chemists, engineers, etc. each have their own set of skills and expertise that they bring to a team when they collaborate. Each is responsible for fulfilling the roles that make the most sense to their skill set.

What this means to the students:  Each student will have a role they will need to play in the task. In addition to each actively participating in the stacking of the cups, they will also have an individual role to fill. The roles are as follows:

  • materials manager - collect necessary materials and make sure quantities are correct; get replacement materials if anything is lost or broken
  • time manager - monitors time and makes sure the group is cleaned up within one minute of the "stop time" written on the board
  • clean up crew - puts materials back int he appropriate location after the activity is completed
  • reporter - assists teammates in recording data and results in their notebooks ; reports results to the class at the conclusion of the activity

I found a great set of Lab Role Posters that I use throughout the year to help define these roles during different activities and experiments. I don't always need every role, so I tend to review them before almost every activity.


3. Scientists often have differing opinions or ideas, but still have a common goal.

What I say: You may all have ideas on how to best stack these cups in the quickest way, but your opinion may be different from someone else on your team. If everyone went with their own idea and didn't communicate with one another, then they are not truly collaborating.

What this means to the students: Students must listen to everyone's thoughts before they start building. If everyone tries their own ideas at once, then no one will be successful. 


Once everyone is clear on the guidelines, the materials managers will get their materials. I usually pace each team's materials in a large Ziploc baggie ahead of time, so they can just grab their bag and begin.

I purposely give very little direction as to how to complete the task, as I want them to discuss strategies and grapple with the task. Students will try many strategies, including stacking with their knees, feet, and even their mouths (which I usually stop in order to prevent spreading of germs.)It is fun to listen in to their conversations and watch them try several different ways to stack the cups.

I circulate throughout the room, redirecting and providing gentle reminders of the guidelines as necessary. This activity gives me a great way to learn more about students' personality types and group dynamics early in the school year.

Eventually, one group will realize that they will need to tie the strings to the rubber bands, and each person will need to hold on to one piece of the string and work together will manipulate the rubber band to grasp and move the cups. Once they figure this out, the stacking moves pretty quickly. other groups will see this group's success and start to do the same thing. I allow that and even talk commend them on it later, as they utilized knowledge from other scientists to help further their own progress.



10 minutes

Once all students have successfully completed the task, or time has run out, the clean up crew puts the materials away and the the students return to their seats.  I have my student desks arranged in groups of 4-6 so that they can easily discuss and complete cooperative activities. If your students sit in rows or by themselves, you will want to have them move into small groups for the next portion of this activity. I try to place at least one reporter at every desk group so that they can lead the discussions.

I provide the following questions on the board and start a 5 minute timer.  The students must discuss, using the same "Turn and Talk" strategy as they did earlier in the lesson:

  • What did you try that didn't work?
  • How did you discover a workable strategy?
  • What was the hardest thing about collaborating in this way?
  • What was the best thing about collaborating in this way?

*I instruct my students to participate in discussion the entire time. if they run out of things to say that are related to the questions, they must sit in silence. (Eventually, the awkward silence is too much to bear and they will start to elaborate on their thoughts!)

After giving them time to discuss at their seats, I call on students to share their thoughts with the class. As a student shares their thoughts, I randomly call on another student to paraphrase what that student has said and to provide a response, starting with, "I like _____'s idea of...",  "I agree with ______ because...",  "I agree and want to add...",  or " I disagree, because...". (These discussion frames are posted in my room.) Again, this holds all of the students accountable for active participation and cognitive engagement.


10 minutes

Once students have had a chance to collaborate in smaller groups, it is time to extend the activity to include the whole class. While this activity can easily be skipped if time does not permit, it is an engaging activity and a great extension to what has already occurred.

Similar to the Solo cup activity, I provide the students with rubber bands and string. This time however, they get enough string and bands for every student to have one of their own. I ask the same materials managers from the prior activity to pass out one of each material to their teammates from the cup stacking activity.

Instead of solo cups, the students are provided with one large bucket or tub and a kick ball or other ball of the same size, which is placed inside the tub.  I explain to the students that their task is to collaborate as one large group to lightly toss the ball out of the tub and catch it again, using the tools provided to them. I usually give them only 7-8 minutes to complete this activity, as giving too much time can lead to a lot of off task behavior if they do not feel successful. I review the guidelines one more time, letting the students know that they have received some new scientific information, thanks to a recent breakthrough, and they are ow allowed to use both hands. 

At this point, I back away, and let the students work though the challenge. Students who are successful will realize they need to make a large chain using their rubber bands (see image below), loop this chain together to wrap around the tub, and tie the strings around the chain, so that they each have their own "handle". This will enable them to complete the challenge with ease.

If I notice they are struggling, I will sometimes announce new "scientific breakthroughs", giving them small hints on how to work through some of the steps of the challenge.  This may include how to chain the rubber bands, or making an observation, such as how they each have their own string and reminding them how the strings were used in the prior task.


5 minutes

Once students have a chance to complete the class collaboration challenge, I have them return to their seats and discuss in the same manner, using the same questions, as the team collaboration activity. I ask the students to refer to the Venn diagram they completed at the beginning of the lesson. I ask them to think about what the pictures have to do with our learning topic, and ask them to add something related to collaboration to their Venn diagram.

Next, I pass out the Quick write/Quick draw form.  Using the form, students must complete the following:

Quick write*:

  • What does collaboration have to do with the sports pictures?
  • Why is collaboration important in science?

Quick draw:

  • Draw a line to separate your drawing space into 2 sections.
  • Sketch another real world example of collaboration.
  • Sketch a non-example of collaboration.

New Words (define in your own words):

  • collaboration

I collect these papers and use them to assess whether or not my students truly understand the idea of collaboration and how it relates to science. We will add these papers to their science journals the following day before starting out next science lesson.

*WHST.6-8.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.