#11 – How We do Science Curriculum & Team Building by playing “Telephone”

Team building is an important part of running a class. And, it requires constant upkeep. If I want my car to run smoothly throughout the year, I can’t change the oil once a year and expect it to last. Similarly, I can’t just do a science team building activity at the beginning of the year in class and expect that classroom spirit to continue throughout the year. Classroom culture needs to be continuously supported by regular team building.


Unfortunately, team building activities are often difficult to do. This is mainly due to curricular constraints. That is, there’s simply no time to do team building because the curriculum comes first. Or, teachers need to justify how the team building activity they’re doing links to the science curriculum. In our science team building activities, we overcome these hurdles by having students solve a physical science problem creatively. We also place an element of friendly competition along with it. Below is one science team building activity I’ve used for the past few years, and kids have always enjoyed it. Handouts are available at the end of this post.


Using Past “Technology” to Teach

The activity I use as a science team building activity is basically a mashup of the children’s games “Telephone” and “Charades”. The activity is kind of like semaphore – where seamen use flag patterns to send messages between naval ships. Similarly, in our activity, a message is sent from one person to another using body actions – no talking is allowed. And, students cannot run towards each other either (or use a mobile device). I first did this activity back in 1996, when I was in high school myself, at a science competition. I didn’t know it back then, but the activity taught computational (ie. coding principles), critical, and creative thinking. The activity also forced me to work closely with my team members. Twenty-one years later, I use this activity typically between grading terms or units – to give students a bit of a mental break.


The goal of this activity is to send a message (a randomly generated pattern of 16 X’s on a 8×8 grid) to another person holding a blank 8×8 grid. Since the person holding the original message (ie. the sender) is must not yell or physically pass the message to the person holding the blank grid (ie. the receiver), the sender must use body gestures to pass the message to the receiver. The sender and receiver must work together beforehand to determine a “code” they will use to send and translate the message.


For example, one code could have the sender read the grid from left to right, one box and one row at a time, and indicate an X by putting a right hand up and the absence of an X by putting a right hand to the right hand up. The receiver would watch the sender and starting place an X in the box or leave the box blank, going left to right, one box and one row at the time. That’s one sample code, but is it the fastest? In order to win the science team building activity, the winning team must send and receive the message in the shortest amount of time.


One more twist

The sender and receiver must send the message around a corner (ie. around the corner of a hallway or a building). Sender and receiver cannot see each other. For example, if the sender is standing at the southwest corner of the building, then the receiver should be standing at the northeast corner.


So, how can the message from the sender get to the receiver if they cannot see each other? Well, there’s a 3rd person on the team – a middleman. In the above example, there would be a middleman standing at the northwest corner of the building. The role of the middleman is to relay the message between sender and receiver. The middleman watches the sender and copies the sender’s exact actions, while the receiver watches the middleman and translates the message. This is where the “Telephone” aspect of the activity comes into play.


Field Notes

  • Each team has 3 members.
  • Give teams 1 day to prepare. One day is more than enough time to come up with and practice a code.
  • Make it clear to students that they will receive a randomly generated pattern of X’s on a 8×8 grid on competition day. It is randomly-generated. One year, I had a group of students practice a sample message for only 15 minutes. Then, they sat down for the rest of the class. They said they were finished. At the end of the class, I told them they would get a different message to send next day. They were surprised!
  • Each error adds 15 seconds to team’s final time.


Putting it all together

Science team building activities are great not just to build or maintain an awesome classroom culture but also to give students a break sometimes. Giving students an active, open ended challenge with an element of friendly competition does the trick for me. And, the fact that these challenges tie in aspects of the curriculum (ie. building and prototyping, working with others, solving problems using critical and creative thinking) make them easier to justify. If you want the notes and illustrations to how I set up our REAL Science Semaphore Coding challenge, click the link below and join our email list.


For REAL Science Semaphore Coding Challenge Handouts, Click Here

Until next time, keep it REAL.

Posted on September 12, 2017 in Activities

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Responses (2)

  1. Sue
    September 17, 2017 at 9:06 am ·


    Love your posts! I’ve been teaching for a while and it’s nice to be inspired with new ideas! Thank you again for sharing and guiding the rest of us with cool things!

    • klui
      September 18, 2017 at 8:55 pm ·

      Thanks, Sue! I’m flattered and happy that you find it useful.

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