Tower Challenge - A Community Building Activity for Any Grade

When planning the first few days and weeks of the school year, a few things always stick out as important to me. First, is building routines and laying out the structure of what class will look like. For my 6th and 8th grade students, that means filling out assignment notebooks, starting our daily check routine with some simple questions to start class, and learning how to work together. Second, I try to place a great deal of emphasis on making math fun and exciting for my students during those initial class periods, so that they leave feeling engaged and wanting to come back. Diving deep into challenging math concepts can wait a few days. I believe the very beginning of the year should include some simple math tasks to build confidence and lots of fun, engaging, and hands-on activities. The past couple of years, I have grown to like one team building activity in particular... the Tower Challenge!

Setup: I break the class randomly into groups of 3-4 students. Each group starts with the materials pictured above: 2 pieces of card stock, 2 pieces of large construction paper, 2 Popsicle sticks, 4 paper clips, 1 ruler, and 15 inches of tape. One of the great things about this project is you can really use any materials. This is just what I used last year... it has changed pretty much every year based on what I have available!

Planning: Tell students they will have approximately 13-15 minutes total to build the tallest free-standing structure using only the materials provided. Their tower cannot be attached to any wall or table, but they can tape to the ground. They can only use the materials provided! They will get 2 minutes to talk as a group and come up with a plan (without touching the materials!). After the planning time is up, they will get to start, but here is the kicker... for the first 4 minutes of building, they won't be able to talk to each other.

Round 1: For the first four minutes, students must work together without talking. They can sketch, write, or use any other form of nonverbal communication. I usually come up with some sort of penalty if I hear talking. For example, they must take 3 inches off their final height.

Round 2: After the first four minutes is up, I have them freeze. The next four minute, they will be able to talk. However, for this next round, they can only use one hand. I would suggest having them put one arm behind their back, since it is very easy to forget and accidentally use two hands! It is great watching the teamwork involved with this round!

Round 3: After the round of using only one hand, I usually walk around and give each group an additional piece of construction paper and about another foot of tape. Then, for the final 5 minutes, they can use all of their resources. You probably want to forewarn them that this is it... after these 5 minutes, the must let go of their tower. If it falls it falls!

Measuring: I usually have students go back to their seats, where they are a little bit less talkative, while we measure. I walk around and measure each tower to the highest point. Even if it fell, they highest point is usually at least 3-5 inches. As I measure, I usually have a student record each height on the board. Even though we don't cover it until later, I usually find the class average and we have a little friendly competition between class periods!

This activity has been great for a couple of reasons. For one, it promotes a ton of teamwork and working together. I tell the students going in that working together is our number one goal of the activity. If their tower falls that is fine, I am looking at how they are able to work with their group! Second, students LOVE it! I want students to leave math the first few days saying that math was awesome. This is one of those activities that can help do that.

Hope you are all off to a great start to the school year! For another beginning of the year activity, be sure to also check out this Math is Everywhere project. It is one of those easy, low pressure math activities that gets students off to a great start in math and also gets them thinking about where they see math in the real world!