The Log to Laptop Assignment
I have roughly twenty students in each of my classes, so I randomly numbered them 1 through 5 and broke them into five groups of (approximately) four students each. While they were rearranging themselves into their groups, I put the following on the board.
Show the steps that prove how a log (in the year 2,000 B.C.), floating down a river, can lead to the invention of the laptop computer.
Once they were rearranged, I gave them the following instructions (more or less):
"Okay, a human sees a log floating in a river 4,000 years ago and gets an idea. The human does something with the log that leads to something else, that leads to something else, that leads to something else.... Eventually, those ideas and inventions create a set of conditions in which it is possible for laptop computers to exist.
At this point, I usually pick up my two sticks and repeat back the information they gave me about how the stick could be used (rough stick was used to dig food out of hollow trees or termite nests, but when sharpened, it could become a tool for writing cuneiform, the cuneiform stylus was replaced by things like quills once ink was invented, but books had to be written by hand, Gutenberg saw a wine press in action and got the idea for a printing press, that led to different printing mechanisms, then to typewriters, etc. I ask them to brainstorm in groups and prepare a visual presentation that shows what invention or mechanism led from the log to the laptop. Same idea, different storyline. They work in their groups for approximately two days, and then we have their presentations. Presentations are open to challenge by the rest of the groups, ensuring the necessity for them to know their material and be able to back up their information with factual data.