Lab Lateral thinking

My son was asking us some riddles the other day and I started turning them into lateral thinking puzzles by asking him yes/no questions to figure out the answer. This reminded me of something I tried in my first year of teaching that I’ve since abandoned (due to logistics) and I thought I’d throw it out there to see if you guys think it has any value.

What is a lateral thinking puzzle? Wikipedia claims they’re also called Situation Puzzles. You give your audience a situation and they ask yes/no questions to try to figure out the whole story. My favorite one starts with:

Two friends walk into a restaurant. They both order turtle soup. The both eat a bite. One dies. Why?

and ends (after lots of yes/no questions) with:

There were originally 3 friends. One year earlier they had all been on a ocean sailing trip. They crashed and ended up on an island. The two in the restaurant were on one side of the island. They were hungry so the one who doesn’t die later goes hunting for food. He comes back with “turtle soup” that saves their lives. A year later the other friend realizes that his soup doesn’t taste at all like what he had on the island, realizing that he ate the third friend instead, giving him a heart attack.

Here’s a much simpler one. It starts with:

A man is lying face down with a backpack on.

and ends with:

He was skydiving and his chute didn’t deploy. He died on impact.

They don’t all deal with death, those are just the ones that stick in my head.

Ok, what does that have to do with my teaching? Well, I thought it was a good analogy for the types of questioning you have to do in a lab situation when you’re trying to figure things out. You often have lots of knobs, switches, and decisions to make. To figure out what’s going on, you often have to try lots of permutations. However, you should only change one thing at a time to make sure you have definitive conclusions. I figure that “one parameter at a time” thing was a lot like the “yes/no” questions in the game. So, I figured students could benefit from expanding their minds a little with that sort of thinking.

Honestly this is exactly what my 6th grade teacher was doing when she’d have us spend weeks on one puzzle, only being allowed to ask two or three questions per day as a class. I have really fond memories of 6th grade (whoo hoo, go Kitzingen-American Middle School in Kitzingen Germany) and those puzzles are a stand-out memory for me.

Why did I stop? Ugh, it takes a while, though I could have done a better job of limiting the questions per day. And, I think my 6th grade classmates and I were a little more invested with these silly little puzzles than my first-year-teaching students were.

So, what do you think? Does this idea have legs? Is it dumb? Is there something you could add to it? Here are some starters for you:

  • This is a cool idea, and I’ve been doing it for years. Here’s what I’ve been learning  . . .
  • This is a dumb idea. Labs are not puzzles. They’re recipes our students have to follow. What you should do is . . .
  • I’m in your class right now and this seems much more fun than what we do. When can we start?
  • Why are you so fixated on death?
  • I love turtle soup and you’ve now ruined it for me. When are you going to stop being such a jerk?
  • I like this idea but I’m not sure how it’ll work in this situation: . . .
  • Here’s how I’d solve the logistics . . .
  • Here’s my favorite lateral thinking puzzle . . .
  • This would seem to work better for some labs than others. Here’s how I’d break it down . . .

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
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4 Responses to Lab Lateral thinking

  1. bretbenesh says:

    I think it is a good idea, but one has to wonder about the time cost involved. I would definitely consider doing it in a “math for liberal arts” course, but probably not a calculus course (I can’t explain why I think this).

    However, I am skeptical that it would actually help students do better lab work. But what do I know?

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I think I’m a little skeptical as well. Certainly an argument can be made (I tried above) that there’s an analogy between questions you have to ask in lab and the questions in the game. Whether practicing with the game helps you in the lab is a much harder question, I think.

  2. It’s not a dumb idea or analogy to lab practices, but you’ve already identified the problem with implementing it: the time it takes. What do you give up when you do the lateral thinking? I don’t know, but you’d be making some choices somewhere. I think if you could find some simpler puzzles to introduce you would have a good compromise.

  3. Joss Ives says:

    It seems worthwhile to try it out once in the first lab and see how it goes.

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