Lots of teachers use icebreakers to start off the year. I use some with mixed results. Sometimes I feel like they are a waste of time. I like group problem-solving activities better than “find someone with the same birthday month as you” type. Well I had an idea for a way to start off this year at my construction job this week.This idea is in the WCYDWT philosophy but is more hands on than video based. I also spell out the problem as a challenge.

At my job we are forming walls on a funky house right now. It is two rectangles crossed in an X. The angle of the intersection is 60 degrees. It was not laid out by surveyors so we had to set stakes to find the exact dimensions and angles. It was quite a challenge. (I had to laugh when the homeowner, a computer programmer, pulled out his compass app on his iPhone 4 to check our pins. He also wanted the main part of the house parallel to a fence row 300 feet away with hills and trees in between.)

So my “icebreaker” is to give groups of students six wooden stakes, a tape measure, and a hammer. I will also allow them to use calculators, textbooks, and perhaps their phones as resources. The problem is for them to lay out a perfect rectangle with an area of 48 square feet.

I like this problem because it is cooperative, real world, outside, hands-on, and has multiple ways to solve it. I picked 48 square feet because students can use a 6-8-10 (3-4-5) triangle to find 90 degrees. They also can check the diagonals for congruency to find out if it is square. Students can also just use trial and error to try to make their rectangles better.

I see this as a 9th grade level or higher problem. It allows for review of Pythagorean Theorem and properties of rectangles. Of course discussion of different solution strategies and how to “prove” a rectangle is perfect at the end are a critical part of making this activity successful.