One word story

My kids like to play an old campfire game I learned as a kid. You collectively tell a story but you only get one word each. Here’s an impromptu example with my boys:

Once a little girl skipped along quietly while an explosion happened nearby. The horse galloped over beside her. It was white, red, and smelly. “It’s hot,” it said. The horse didn’t like being cold.

(copyright today Rundquist Boys)

It’s a fun game that requires listening and patience and thinking fast. Often the boys get crabby when the story doesn’t go the way they want it to, but they recover, usually with laughter.

This post is about how I’ve used this approach in my classes. I use this tool on occasion to see if they whole class gets a concept. For example, if I want to see if they understand why we had to redefine momentum given special relativity, I might ask the class to tell me the story from Einstein’s postulates to the new definition of momentum. I just have them go through the class in order as they sit, and I play as well (that helps get them on track sometimes). They laugh and get nervous, but usually it works well. Where there’s pauses, I make a note about things that aren’t as well understood, and it’s also interesting to see how they can go in multiple directions from something like “[topic] also shows how . . .”

Most recently I used this in my “Hamline Engineering” first year seminar, where we spend the semester trying to understand what engineering is, placing it in context with science, art, etc. The assignment for the day was to find an article that helped them define engineering (generally, not for a particular type) and come ready to finish the sentence that starts “Engineering is . . .” (Note: I told them they’d get candy if they brought a unique article. I think I only handed out 10 pieces of candy to the 17 people in the class).

Once in class, I had them spend five minutes writing their own individual definitions. Then I put them into three groups and asked each group to come up with a single definition. They used ten minutes to do that. Then we came back together and I introduced them to the one-word game. Only we did it as groups. It was really interesting to hear the groups fighting over what the next word should be, as they all had slightly different emphasis in their definitions. Here’s what they came up with:

Engineering is the creative combination of math, science, and technologies to use for real world applications and improving the world.

If you look carefully, you’ll note that the first group had a pretty boring time of it at first (“the”, “of”, “and”). They thought they were off the hook at first, but they realized that they weren’t steering the conversation. It was funny how the other groups were jealous of them (for not having to work very hard), so the last group (the one before them) started figuring out how to force them to come up with a more meaningful word.

When we were done, they were mostly satisfied with it, but they clearly thought they had better examples. So, I decided we should try the one-word game individually. I randomized the names, and they came up with:

Engineering is creatively applying math and science for intuitively designing and artificially constructing solutions to benefit society and life.

Similar, but there’s some odd words in there (like “artificially”). After that we had a conversation about what was missing, with some interesting differences about whether we should be defining what an engineer is instead of what engineering is. Cool stuff, I say.

At the end of the day, I put the definitions into a google doc so that they could start to collaboratively edit it. They’re motivated because they have to use that definition for two of the major projects of the course.

Anyways, I just wanted to get this down so I wouldn’t forget how it went. I thought it was a fun day, and a great example of how I use the one-word game. Your thoughts? As usual, here are some prompts for you:

  1. I’m in this class, and SuperFly has totally misrepresented what happened . . .
  2. I’m in this class, and I hated this exercise because . . .
  3. I’m in this class, and I loved this because . . .
  4. How do you deal with punctuation?
  5. What do you do with a grammar mistake?
  6. This is cool, we should force politicians to do this!
  7. This is dumb, students should find their own individual voices.

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in syllabus creation, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to One word story

  1. Lance Haseltine says:

    Super Fly, I like this thoughtful game. Thanks for posting your thoughtful teaching thoughts. I saw that you are thinking about group grading. In my Anatomy and Physiology classes, we grade tests immediately afterwards as a group. I ask volunteers to answer each question. Then we discuss the answers. I allow my students to grade their own tests (with red pens), then I bring them home and look them over to make sure their answers are OK. What do you think about this practice?

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      That sounds cool, Lance. Do you then record those scores? Can they redo it? I guess I’m curious where it goes from there.

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