How-To Tips for Successful Teamwork

Teamwork - the most interesting dynamic of STEM challenges! And, the one that creates all kinds of interesting dilemmas!

When my students trooped into my lab for the first time (five years ago) I seated them at our lab tables and explained what we would be doing and also let them know the table groups would now be teams and they would work together. 

I naively believed we could just move forward with no further explanation. #oops

Well, that didn't work.

As a  classroom teacher for many years, I should have known that the group dynamics that ground each STEM challenge and make it successful would be something cultivated and learned. Taught and practiced. Developed over time. Maybe a few tips will help you! 

STEM Challenges and Teamwork! This is truly the most exciting part of STEM events! How will students work together? This post gives you tips and ideas for making these events come alive with the way your students encourage one another and collaborate to complete their STEM structures. From two-team challenges to ways of dividing students into groups to ideas for team building activities, this is a post that will get you started! #teamwork #STEM





Here are a Few Quick Tips to Get You Going!

As we have moved from one year to the next in our STEM lab I have noticed that my fifth graders are the easiest group to work with. They have already had STEM as third and fourth graders with me. When they are divided into groups they move right through our planning procedures with very little drama. The younger students...not so much!

In fact, two years ago I also took on first and second graders in a STEM class. Oh, my. The way they tackled STEM projects was new to me. They were very excited about building anything-- as long as each of them could build their own structure. We had to work out a routine for building at this age just like my big kids.

So, let's simplify this with some easy tips that will help you with grouping and teaching teamwork:
  • Create a Teamwork Event
  • Add Some Fun in Choosing Teams
  • Add a Surprising Twist to the "Teamwork"
  • Build on Teamwork Strategies

Create a Teamwork Event

This type of challenge was invented accidentally. I had toyed with the idea of giving students a bag of materials with each group having the same materials in the bag, but building something different. I wondered what each group would do with the same materials and different tasks.

But, being pragmatic about the management of this, I decided to try something with more direction first.

Bam! Challenges that use the same supplies for two task were born.
STEM Challenges and Teamwork! This is truly the most exciting part of STEM events! How will students work together? This post gives you tips and ideas for making these events come alive with the way your students encourage one another and collaborate to complete their STEM structures. From two-team challenges to ways of dividing students into groups to ideas for team building activities, this is a post that will get you started! #teamwork #STEM
This turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Here's the idea: Side-by-side tables are given the same materials. One table builds part of the structure and the other table builds the second part of the structure. At some point, the two structures must be joined together. Teamwork-YES!

In the above photo, the two teams have built a Rescue Device. One table built the passenger carrier to rescue the people (marshmallows) and the other team has built the cranking device to lift the carrier.

Did they have to work together? Are you kidding? This is the ultimate teamwork event. The two tables must communicate with one another. If the carrier is too heavy then the crank cannot lift it. If the crank is unsteady the cargo is dumped.

I LOVE this challenge because of the interaction between the two teams. Events like this are perfect for encouraging teamwork. Think about it. The two teams have to work solidly as one in order for both teams to be successful.

Below is another example. We call this one Satellite Towers.
STEM Challenges and Teamwork! This is truly the most exciting part of STEM events! How will students work together? This post gives you tips and ideas for making these events come alive with the way your students encourage one another and collaborate to complete their STEM structures. From two-team challenges to ways of dividing students into groups to ideas for team building activities, this is a post that will get you started! #teamwork #STEM
Each team receives similar items. The dish team has different foam items and cups in order to make the dish and the tower team has extra straws to build the tall tower. Again, the two teams must work together to make sure the dish will fit correctly on the tower.

What I love best about these two team events is the way I see kids cross over constantly to the other table to measure or test their devices with one another.  It's pretty awesome to watch them try to connect the two devices and talk about what needs to be adjusted on both parts to make it work. 

These two teams-as-one events would be great options to set up in your class! Teamwork!

Add Some Fun in Choosing Teams

So, a side note in the middle of this post!

I am often asked how I divide students into groups. I actually have four methods:

  • Ticket Choice- I hand out colored tickets at the door to create a totally random arrangement. The tickets match the colors of our tables and students go and sit at that table. (The supply tubs on the tables are different colors.)
  • Free Choice- Kids choose their own seating. (This can be problematic with students that make poor choices, but I reserve the ability to move them.)
  • My Choice- I assign their seats. I do this sometimes with challenges that need more than four students or for something that I feel a random choice will not work. Or substitute days. (It's time-consuming to assign seats.)
  • Job Choice- I hand out job assignment tickets at the door. These are also in colors that match our tables and it is random. (These are fun because the students are assigned a job rather than choosing one.)
STEM Challenges and Teamwork! This is truly the most exciting part of STEM events! How will students work together? This post gives you tips and ideas for making these events come alive with the way your students encourage one another and collaborate to complete their STEM structures. From two-team challenges to ways of dividing students into groups to ideas for team building activities, this is a post that will get you started! #teamwork #STEM
Kids always enjoy these job assignment tickets. They love the language - calling themselves a civil engineer just makes it fun. I also love asking, "Who is your Materials Engineer?" (Or a similar question!)

I have tried all the ways I listed to divide kids into groups. Their favorite, of course, is the free choice option. TIP: Alternate the way you divide students into teams. Each month I use tickets for 2 weeks, my choice for 1 week, and then free choice for 1 week.

Add a Surprising Twist to the "Teamwork"

This unique twist on a challenge was THE MOST FUN event ever! Seriously.

It's a tower building challenge with 6 requirements. As students were seated the teams found a bin of materials and a task card for the first requirement. They had five minutes to use the materials and get started.

Then they rotated- TO THE NEXT TABLE. As teams arrived at the second table they found the second task card with its requirement and whatever the team before them had built. The team had to continue building and use what was already there. Whoa!

STEM Challenges and Teamwork! This is truly the most exciting part of STEM events! How will students work together? This post gives you tips and ideas for making these events come alive with the way your students encourage one another and collaborate to complete their STEM structures. From two-team challenges to ways of dividing students into groups to ideas for team building activities, this is a post that will get you started! #teamwork #STEM
Above (the top two photos), the first team created the base of the tower using craft sticks and the second team added the first tower level. Looks good! The first team used the craft sticks which left the cardboard for the first level which was excellent on their part- planning ahead for the next team.

Also above, on the bottom,  the first team used cardboard and craft sticks for the base. The second team is attaching legs to create the first level of the tower. Will someone need that base piece of cardboard later? Maybe!

So many dilemmas. Yes, we had teams that were mad because the structure before them was poorly built or not finished or the team had used materials they needed. But, I also saw teams go back and talk to the team before them to try to understand what their plan had been so the new team could continue. 

This is a perfect challenge to try to engage in a lively discussion of teamwork. In this case, it was teamwork of the entire class!

Build on Teamwork Strategies

Here's a great question: Do I start with challenges at the beginning of the year? Dive right into STEM?

Uh, no. We actually spend a week or two with team building activities. One of my absolute favorites is The String Lifter.

STEM Challenges and Teamwork! This is truly the most exciting part of STEM events! How will students work together? This post gives you tips and ideas for making these events come alive with the way your students encourage one another and collaborate to complete their STEM structures. From two-team challenges to ways of dividing students into groups to ideas for team building activities, this is a post that will get you started! #teamwork #STEM
My string lifter is a contraption I made and use every fall. There are about 22-24 strings dangling from a center ring and each student holds one or two. I place something on the ring in the center and the entire group must stand and lift the item by keeping the strings taut. It's a lot more difficult than you think! 

I have several of these team building activities we use. (A blog post is linked below - with instructions for building the string lifter.)

So, what is my overall advice: Start with some team building activities, try a very simple challenge (I have a free one listed in the links below), talk about how teams worked togther at the end of every event, and then try a two-team challenge.

One more piece of advice: Be patient. Working as a TEAM will get better over time. The more challenges completed the better it gets! 

Links for You:

This post is Part 6 of my Summer Series! Try them all!

STEM Challenges and Teamwork! This is truly the most exciting part of STEM events! How will students work together? This post gives you tips and ideas for making these events come alive with the way your students encourage one another and collaborate to complete their STEM structures. From two-team challenges to ways of dividing students into groups to ideas for team building activities, this is a post that will get you started! #teamwork #STEM


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