Polar Bears around an Ice Hole

I started some of my classes today with the “Polar Bears around an Ice Hole” riddle:

> The game is in the name of the game – polar bears around an ice hole – invented in the days of Ghengis Khan.
> A clue for you to keep you true – like petals around a rose, you can count each bear’s nose.
> How many polar bears do you see?

You then roll a bunch of dice. (I created six 5″ dice from styrofoam and black pom poms.) A physics teacher from another school uses this as his introduction activity on the first day of school and shared the activity a couple of years ago. I had planned on using this activity as an extended analogy to introduce specific aspects of the class culture:

* You may feel frustrated as you try to figure physics out. That’s okay.
* Physics is hard to understand until you know the “rules of the game.”
* But, once you discover the rules, physics often seems easy and you may be surprised that others don’t understand.
* However, remember that you didn’t always understand.
* When you discover the rules and understand without someone just telling you the “answer”, you are excited.
* The journey to understanding is very important. So, no one is going to tell you the answer, but we’re all here to support each other on our journeys.
* Being told the “answer” at most gives you one answer that you didn’t know. Learning to think critically and arrive at the answer with support develops a skill that you will use to find many answers.

As the activity progressed, I realized that this activity also served as an excellent example of scientific inquiry. As we continued to try and solve the riddle, I introduced several important ideas:

* make careful observations
* gather lots of data (many roles of the dice)
* look for patterns, compare and contrast, look for extremes
* simply the problem being investigated (roll fewer dice)
* constrain the variables (set dice to specific values)
* propose a hypothesis, test it, modify it based on results, repeat

After discussing the activity, I grabbed my notebook and nonchalantly asked who solved the riddle within the first five minutes. I then announced that they would receive As for today. I then asked who solved the riddle in ten minutes and announced that they would receive Bs. Next, who solved the riddle in fifteen minutes and announced that they would receive Cs. Everyone else would receive Fs. This provided a great hook to transition to our discussion about standards-based grading.

3 thoughts on “Polar Bears around an Ice Hole

  1. Frank Noschese

    I did this in class today on my SMART Board (gasp!) using the dice interactive objects that are part of the Notebook software. Worked out really well. I started w/ 5 dice and we did 3 rolls, then I removed 1 dice and did 3 more, etc, until we were down to 1 die. After each roll, the kids had 25 seconds to write their guesses on a small whiteboards (1 per student).

    It worked better than I had planned–I didn’t think the kids would be that into it. When we debriefed, I also talked about the SBG connection you wrote about.

    I never heard the Polar Bear name for the game — just the rose petals one. I like the Polar Bears name better.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. geoff Post author

      Glad to hear that it worked well with your class! I’ll keep the SMART Board solution in mind. I can see my styrofoam cubes becoming quite rounded after many roles!

  2. Tony

    The activity reminds me of a Feynman quote: “Imagine that the gods are playing some great game like chess…and you don’t know the rules of the game, but you’re allowed to look at the board at least from time to time in a little corner perhaps. And from these observations you try to figure out what the rules are of the game.” That’s science in a nutshell, right?


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