Captain's Journal

A collection of fun, creative, and effective teamwork challenges!

When giving a teamwork challenge that also inspires creativity, I find that it's best to give as little instruction as possible and let the students figure out the rest. After giving the challenge, sit back and observe, try to interact as little as possible! Afterwards, give feedback regarding how they communicated with one another and where they could improve their creative thinking. The below challenges include what you set up, what you tell the students, what you can expect them to do, and some have alternative creative answers to the challenge.

Sorting in Australia

What you set up: Tie a long (50+ feet) string to a tree or post. Be sure to have a pair of scissors or a knife discreetly close by, do not bring attention to it.

What you tell the students: Have all students grab onto the rope in a random order. Tell them that this is a magical rope and as long as they are grabbing it (grabbing, not just touching) they are safe from falling into the sun. The challenge is, they need to get in some sort of order based on name, birthday, or even color of their shirts! For an added challenge, you can say that they need to maintain a social distance of 6 feet from each other (you may need a longer rope!), or you can say they aren't allowed to talk.

What you can expect the students to do: They will likely come to the conclusion that they have to fold the rope in such a way that allows people to pass one another. It's always fun when someone at one end of the rope needs to get to the complete opposite end! I've had students ask if they can hold onto the rope with their teeth or tie their shoes to it. Of course they can, but it doesn't help too much! It is good sign when they try to better understand what "grab" means! Observe how well they listen to one another even when they're far apart.

Alternative solutions: Because this rope is magical, you only need to hold it so that you don't fly into the sun, this means you can't just cut the rope so everyone has their own piece and they can walk around freely! They are also welcome to untie the rope from whatever it is secured to.

Throwing Across the River

What you set up: Get two long (about 6ft) moveable objects, like 2x4s of wood, and draw an arrow on each one perpendicular to one of the long edges; set these up parallel to one another with the arrows facing away from one another.  Also get something that can be thrown and a tape measure

What you tell the students: They need to pass an item back and forth across an imaginary river. The long objects represent the river banks and they must be a set distance away (10 feet is too easy, try 15-20+ feet) from one another. Split the students into 2 even groups (it's okay if one side has an extra). One group must stay on the side denoted by one river bank arrow, one group must stay on the side denoted by the other river bank arrow. The river banks represent long imaginary lines that they cannot cross, so they are not allowed to just walk around the river banks. Also, the arrows on the river banks can never be pointed toward one another. Their goal is to pass the item back and forth to a new person on the opposite river bank each time. If the ball ends up stuck in the imaginary river they have to start over again. 

What you can expect the students to do: They should first move the river banks to the set distance and verify with the tape measure then get behind their respective banks, they will likely leave the river banks parallel to one another meaning the two groups are separated by the previously defined distance. They will throw the ball back and forth to one another in such a way that makes sure everyone touches the ball once. To be an added challenge you can have some coaches/mentors be alligators in the river blocking the item from being thrown. You can also let them have a full successful volley then increase the distance of the river banks. Since these are robotics students, it is assumed that throwing and catching is not their strong suit.

Alternative solutions: Rolling is a perfectly acceptable alternative to throwing. Also, if they wanted to, they could leave the item in the middle and move the river banks back and fourth (while keeping the set distance between them) until everyone has held/touched the item. Also, the students can set the river banks perpendicular to one another while keeping  the closest points of the river bank far enough away from one another, then they can just meet where the imaginary lines intersect and hand the ball to one another. 

Tallest "Tower"

For this one I split the students into 2 groups, Rookies and Veterans then put the veterans at a "disadvantage" by giving them a few fewer blocks. You're welcome to break them into groups of your choosing or have everyone work together!

What you set up:  Get several (20+) building blocks of any size and shape (SkyStone Blocks work really well!). It may be a good idea to have a ladder nearby.

What you tell the students: Give them a set amount of time (5-15 minutes usually works) to make the tallest block tower they can, at the end of time you will measure from the lowest block to the highest block

What you can expect the students to do: See if they take a minute to talk about ideas before immediately jumping in and starting to stack blocks. They will either start by building a sturdy base or just go straight for making an unstable but tall tower. If given enough time, they may realize that they can use a wall or something to stabilize the tower. If their tower is large enough that they can no longer place blocks on top, make sure to step in before things get unsafe. Suggest either using a ladder or lifting the tower and adding blocks to the bottom. If they hit the ceiling, they are more than welcome to relocate to a more open area like outside!

Alternative solutions: The challenge only stated that you would be measuring from the lowest block to the highest block, so each group only needed two blocks. One could be on the ground while the other is taped to the ceiling, or at the top of a stairwell, or thrown on top of the roof! If there were two groups, point out that there was zero incentive to beating the other group, so the groups could have and should have worked together in the spirit of cooperation!

Blind Sorting Algorithm

What you set up: Get a few (5 - 15) blocks or other items that are identical to one another then put tape on the bottom of each item and write a number on the tape. You could just have the numbers be sequential or you could write any numbers including repeats! Mix up the blocks so that they are not in any order and have the side with the tape be face-down This may work best if you have two separate rooms

What you tell the students: The blocks are out of order, and the students must put them in order, but there are rules. Only one student can be in front of/looking at the blocks at a time. While a student is in front of the blocks they may only touch/interact with one block and all blocks must be face down (i.e. whatever face was originally down) by the time the student leaves. All blocks must stay in the designated room/block area. The same student can not go back to look at the blocks again until all students have rotated through the block viewing process. At the end, you will reveal the blocks and see if they are in order! They are more than welcome to communicate with one another including whoever is looking at the blocks. 

What you can expect the students to do: The first student will come in, grab a block, look at the number and place it in a second area away from the unsorted blocks, the student will then communicate what block they looked at. The next students will take turn grabbing an unsorted block and placing it where they think it belongs based on what their teammates said previously. This involves a lot of listening and remembering; they may get it right first try, they may not!

Alternative solutions: While interacting with the blocks, it is perfectly acceptable to move the tape with the number to the top of the block! Or they could grab a marker and write the number on top of the block! This makes everything much easier and the sorting process more reliable. Or they could take pictures with their phone to make it easier to compare notes after they step away from the blocks. 

Passing Possible

What you set up: You will need an open space, a ball or other throwable item, and a hat, or a bucket, or a trashcan.

What you tell the students: Have everyone stand in a circle, the first rule is that everyone must touch the ball, the second is that the ball must only be thrown/tossed from person to person, the third and most important rule is that you may only touch the ball once per round. After the first round, add the rule that they can no longer pass to the person directly next to them. After the second round add a hat or other inanimate object as a player. After the third round, add the rule that they cannot pass to someone next to the person next to them (i.e nobody can pass to the 2 people on the left or the 2 people on their right). After each round, make it harder by increasing how many people they cannot pass to.

What you can expect the students to do: The first round should go easily, they can simply throw it to the person next to them if they wish. The next round they will likely form some sort of system to ensure that everyone gets the ball once and nobody passes the ball to the person next to them. On the third round where the inanimate object is present they now have to pay more attention to their path so that the ball ends on/in the inanimate object.  If you have an even number of participants including the inanimate object this will eventually become "impossible" (for 8 participants the 4th round, for 10 participants the 5th round)

Alternative solutions: The students positions in the circle are not fixed, so if they need to they can switch positions with one another to ensure that everyone catches the ball as required. Also, they can have a coach or mentor join in to make it an odd number! 

Doofus Bolt Factory

This challenge can have a lot of parallel drawn to industrial settings so as part of your de-brief feel free to talk about how this might work in an actual factory. Keep a close eye on whether or not every nut and bolt is properly inspected or if they let a few slide in the chaos.

What you set up: You will need several (50 or so) nuts and matching bolts. I used 1/4-20 bolts that were 2" long so they were easy to handle, but 6-32s or M4s are also fine!

What you tell the students: The students are now all employees of Doofus Bolt Factory. The bolts have just been manufactured and they need to be inspected before being shipped out. There are several tasks that must be done to each nut and bolt:

Feel free to add modify this list as you please! 

Give the students some time to figure out what they are going to do, but don't let them take too long! They have one shot to impress the boss (you) with how fast and accurately they inspect the bolts

What you can expect the students to do: Maybe they'll plan to make an assembly line or maybe they'll give everyone an equal amount of bolts to fully inspect individually.

Shortcuts/tricks: Hopefully they realize that there is no particular order as long as the nuts and bolts end how they should. They may realize it will be hard to mark on a wet bolt, so it's a bad idea to do the surface test after the water test. Your students may realize that they don't have enough hammers for everyone to have one, so using any metal for the glass test is fine if they ask the boss! They may realize that they can do the disappearing test and the water test at the same time! 

Ticker Taping

What you set up: Every student gets an 8.5"x11" piece of paper. Have scissors, tape, and a stapler nearby but do not draw attention to them. Make two marks on the ground 10-15 feet away on the ground or just use your FTC field!

What you tell the students: Don't initially tell the students this is a teamwork challenge; start by saying this is a challenge. Every student has an 8.5"x11" sheet of paper. They must use the paper to make something continuous that starts behind one mark/field wall and end behind the other mark/field wall. This is not like the Tallest "Tower" challenge where you can tear the paper up and have one piece behind the mark and the other piece behind the other mark; it has to be continuous. They cannot get more paper, they must use the paper given (also, they shouldn't need more paper). If they seem to be leaning toward an individual challenge, let them know there will be bonus points for going further past the second line and for using paper in an efficient manner! No, they can't move the marks/field walls closer together.

What you can expect the students to do: If they do ask if this is a team challenge or an individual challenge, allow them to decide what would be best; what would be the most effective way to get this done? One way to do this is to cut the paper in such a way that it forms one long, continuous ribbon. They may also cut the paper into ribbons and tape/staple the ends together, this is perfectly valid as it is continuous. The students are more than welcome to work as a team and use their papers together to make more ribbons to tape/stable/tie together. 

Alternative solutions: The options of making a paper airplane or balling up the paper and throwing it from behind to the other side are also perfectly valid because they are single continuous solutions that start behind one line and end behind the other line!

Parking Spaces Inc

What you set up: Get three lengths of rope/string, 15 feet, 14 feet, and 12 feet long. This activity can be done outside with chalk or inside with tape.

What you tell the students: You are now working for a company that makes parking spaces but is firmly against tape measures and rulers. The only measuring tools they are allowed to use are the three lengths of rope/string of 15 feet, 14 feet, and 12 feet long. They are not allowed to use any other tools or items to help measure. They need to make 7 different sized parking spaces for the following vehicles:

To ensure the customer is happy, this job should be done as quickly as possible and the mentioned vehicles must fit in their parking spaces. 

What you can expect the students to do: One way to solve this problem is to fold the ropes and use math. When you fold them in half then you have a 7' 6"rope, a 7' rope, and a 6' rope. If they fold the ropes in thirds then they have a 5' rope, a 4' 8" rope, and a 4' rope. They can use these combinations and their math skills to make all the spaces!

Alternative solutions: Another way to solve this would be to think about what they are making; parking spaces are never the exact width of the vehicle they are fitting! This is a lesson in tolerances and estimations; if they wanted the job done quickly they could simply guess how wide the spaces should be and add a little bit more just to make sure the vehicle fits in.

My students have done enough of these challenges that they immediately went to making every single parking space 15 feet wide. Although this was fast and would fit every vehicle, it doesn't quite meet customer expectations of having different sized parking spaces.

The Blind Square

What you set up: Get two ropes of about 20 feet in length and tie them into two separate loops. Also have enough blind folds for each of the students. This is best done in a large, open space away from dangerous obstacles.

What you tell the students: Bring the students out and show them the two ropes, explain that everyone will be divided into 2 groups, one per rope. They will be blindfolded and will then have to do something to the rope. Don't let them strategize until they put on their blindfolds.

After everyone puts on their blindfolds: pretend to divide them into 2 groups, when really you are having everyone grab onto the same rope! Once you are done, tell them to form a perfect square.

As they work: Try to say encouraging/discouraging things like "wow, one group is doing really well!" Reinforce the idea that there are two groups, this will make them competitive and irrational. If a student lets go of the rope, guide them and pretend to make them switch teams when really you are just putting them back on the same rope in a different place

Tips and tricks: The first thing they should is work on identifying who is in their group, the quicker they do that, the easier the rest will be! One way to do this is to take turns around the circle and have each person tap the person on their right who will then say their name.

To help with forming a straight line, they may want to use a guide like a wall or a change in the floor (don't do this at the top of stairs). 

Probably the best way to make a perfect square is to assign 4 people semi-evenly spaced around the rope make the rope into 90 degree angles while everyone else between keeps the rope straight by lining up shoulder-to-shoulder!

Measuring Up

What you set up: Measure a few items around the shop as accurately as possible. For diversity measure something <3 in <5 in, <10 in, <3 ft, <10 ft, and >25 ft. Come up with a tolerance for each of these measurements; potentially +/- 10%. Set up a long rope, a few sheets of notebook paper, and some index cards. Divide the students into a few groups with 3-4 students in each group.

What you tell the students: Their challenge will be to measure 6 items that you will tell them. One from each category: <3 in <5 in, <10 in, <3 ft, <10 ft, and >25 ft. They will get points for speed, and points for accuracy. Only if they ask will you tell them they are worth the same amount of points. Give each team their starting equipment (rope, notebook paper, and index cards). Then, in any order you choose, tell them to go measure one of the objects you previously measured. The first team to guess within the tolerance gets 5 points, and the team with the most accurate answer at the end gets 5 points. Feel free to assign additional points as you see fit.

What you can expect the students to do: Hopefully they will start to use the equipment given to them. They should know that a standard index card is 3in x 5in and a standard sheet of notebook paper is 8.5in x 11in. They may also know approximations as they relate to the human body: the distance from the tip of a thumb to the knuckle is ~1in and they should know their own heights. 

Tips and tricks: If they figure out the point values, each team could assign someone to keep semi-randomly guessing until they get within the tolerance to prioritize getting the speed points. Once a team has gotten the speed points, everyone else should know what guess was within the tolerance, and now should prioritize accuracy points. To prioritize the accuracy points, they should vary their guesses from team-to-team. Take a strategy from "The Price is Right," if one team guesses 1.5in, another team should guess 1.51in to ensure that if the correct answer is anywhere above 1.5", they get the points for being closest. Additionally, each team could assign someone to keep track of which measurements they have already done to help assist the guessing and estimating. For instance, if everyone had already done the <3in item and the <10in item, a good first guess would be 4in.  

Alternative solutions: Just because they were only given paper, rope, and cards, this does not mean that is all they were allowed to use! As soon as they started using their thumbs and heights to estimate, they should have figured that there were other tools available. Just like in FIRST, it is important to think outside of any given kit of parts. They absolutely could have gone to grab rulers, tape measurers, or even calipers and micrometers! Or, if something they were going to measure was something standardized, like the diameter of a soda can, they could even look it up online. 

Cup Flipping

What you set up: Get 7 cups (or coins, or anything with a defined "up" and down").  Set them up in a straight line alternating up, down, up, down, up, down, up.

What you tell the students: It is you versus them. They are allowed to flip one cup per turn. Once they flip a cup, you, the coach, have to flip a cup immediately to the left or right of the cup that the students flipped. The team's goal is to at any point have all cups face-down. Your goal is to stop that. You will take turns, team, coach, team, coach... back and forth until all the cups are face-down (or until you get tired of the game.) Any time you have two equal options (i.e. the cups to the left and right of what the students flipped are both face-down) you will flip a coin to decide which cup you turn.

What you can expect the students to do: They should quickly realize that flipping the two end cups means that you only have one option. Also, since neither team may skip a turn, sometimes you will be forced to flip a cup to be face down. They have to plan out how to force your movements in their favor. 

Alternative solutions: The rules never said anything against putting a cup inside another cup, so they can flip a cup over and into the cup next to it. This makes things much easier by reducing options. They could also choose to move the cup to a different position in the line as they flip it!

Artificial Secret Intelligence

What you set up: Come up with a math formula with one input and one output. For example Y = 5(X-1) + 2. Consider setting up a laptop behind a curtain or vision blocker so you can quickly type in the inputs and get the answer.  For more advanced students, consider using polynomials like Y = (X + 3)(X - 3) or absolute values.

What you tell the students: Part of how artificial intelligence works is by making it's own formulas and algorithms based on what humans show it as correct and incorrect answers to questions. The students will be learning what it can be like to train an artificial intelligence. Each student will be expected to come forward with an input, and you will tell them the output. Then the same student must give an input and make a guess at the output before you will tell them if they are right or wrong. They will repeat this until they make 3 correct guesses about the output in a row. 

What you can expect the students to do: They will come up with a strategy for what inputs to give, maybe they will choose numbers in sequential order (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc). They may start to plot their answers on a graph to visualize what type of formula it is. Hopefully they guess negative numbers as well as positive numbers. For polynomials they need to find the zeros of the equation, for linear equations they need to find the slope and y-intercept. Once they find the equation, they will be able to correctly guess the outputs given the input.

Alternative solution: When guessing the output for an input, the rules never said that they could not use ranges. For instance: "The output for 3 will be less than 2" or "The output for 5 will be greater than 6" would be valid guesses that could be correct. They could even say "the output for 3 will not be 3" as a guess. If they guess like this, they are more likely to get three correct guesses in a row without even knowing what the formula is!