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Middle School
Virginia Tech
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Education Standards (10)

VT PEERS: Bees Breakout Boxes

VT PEERS: Bees Breakout Boxes


Lesson Length: 1-2 hours

Grade Level: 6-8

Students will explore population interaction and impacts on an ecosystem through a breakout box activity grounded in engineering design thinking. Students will learn about how bees are interrelated within an ecosystem by solving clues to save a hive from a breakout box and they will engineer a plan to incorporate bees into a community that addresses concerns, benefits and trade offs for the bees and the humans.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1657263. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


  • 4-6 small tackle or tool boxes
  • 4-6 hasps
  • 4 locks per box (Each box needs to have the same types of lock--we used a key lock, a 5-letter lock, a 4-number lock, and a pad lock)
  • Hive representation for inside box
  • 1 bunch of fake flowers
  • Poster board or large paper (Maps of your local community are optional here.)
  • Markers
  • Post-it notes

Before Class Begins

  • If you are new to the idea of breakout boxes, learn about them by watching the attached videos from Breakout EDU by teachers who have used them. You can find more information at Breakout EDU. You can purchase materials for your own set of breakout boxes at this website, or you can also purchase materials at your local hardware or discount store like we did.
  • Read through our clues and figure out how they might need to be altered to fit with the locks you are using. We chose our clues to touch on Virginia Standards of Learning and to work with the locks we were using. Our clues and lock types with some guidance are included here as an attachment. Number and types of locks is flexible - you may choose to have 2-3 locks vs 4 to accommodate shorter class time or to give more time to the building a bee safe community activity. We had 4-6 groups of 4-5 students in each group for this activity. The boxes are reused between classes and need to be quickly reset.
  • Print, prepare with codes, and post materials for opening the locks around the room. See "Clues to Print and Guidance" attachment. 
  • Set up breakout boxes with bee hives locked inside. You could use a photo or a model of a hive. Several photos are attached here.
    • Label each box with a color and number so you can make them correspond to clues and locks. For example, the group with box labeled "Blue 3" will look for clues labeled "Blue 3." And all the locks on that box are also labeled "Blue 3."
    • Set your locks for each box. Follow instructions from the manufacturer of each lock and be sure they align with clues. Label each lock with a color and number, "Blue 3," for example, so that you can match it to the box that is also labeled "Blue 3."
    • It is helpful to make a master key linking all the lock opening codes with each box by color and number. This is especially useful when resetting boxes between classes.
    • When students open all four locks, inside their boxes they will find their rescued bee hive and materials for "Building a Bee Safe Community." Assemble materials students need to complete this activity: "Building a Bee Safe Community" and "Bee Facts" handouts, chart paper or poster board, markers, and post-it notes. An option for "Building a Bee-Safe Community" could be to use a map of your community (aerial photograph) for placing the bee hive after getting into the boxes. Students could assess alternative development options in their own community in these scenarios (move school here, add housing here, etc.)
    • Note that some students will try to open locks without solving clues through randomly trying combinations or forcing a lock. It is helpful to point out that you expect them to play along and open the locks fairly through solving clues. PLUS it's more fun if they do!
  • Decide how to group students - you need one breakout box and one "Building a Bee Safe Community" kit of materials for each group.
  • For the "Building a Bee Safe Community" Activity, decide how much guidance you want to give students. You may want to make an example map or at least some example symbols to help them get started. You may also want to let them come up with their own design solutions for this assignment. You know your students best!
  • Handouts, Clues and other materials to print/review/prepare for this lesson:
    • CLUES to print and guidance 
    • Beehive photos for inside boxes
    • Bee Job Identification Cards from Project Neuron 
    • Clue #2 and Clue #4 materials 
    • Clue #1 and Clue #3 number line 
    • Bee Facts 
    • Building a Bee-Safe Community 

Engineering Connections

Career & Industry Connections:

  • Civil and environmental engineering (including buffer zones)
  • Systems/Industrial Engineering
  • Industry partner can speak to how the work in this lesson is like the work they do each day--problem solving with tinkering/trying lots of solutions, being flexible, working with others

VT PEERS Engineering Goals: Connecting middle school students with career engineers from local communities helps engineering become accessible to middle school students. During the VT PEERS project, engineers from local industries joined teachers to help deliver the lessons and to share with students about what their daily work was like. Together, project partners (teachers, industry engineers, and Virginia Tech representatives) worked to relay seven "take home" messages about engineering. Each lesson addresses at least one of the key points below, and those most specific to this lesson are in bold.

VT PEERS Things to Know about Engineering and Engineers 

  1. Engineering is in every community and makes a difference in people’s lives. 
  2. Everyone can learn to do engineering.
  3. Engineers are creative, curious, and imaginative.
  4. Engineers work with many types of people to understand problems and create solutions.
  5. Engineers rely on knowledge from multiple subjects to understand all they can.
  6. Solving engineering design problems requires compromise and trade-offs.
  7. Engineers view mistakes as normal and important and try to learn from them.

Look for "Ask an Engineer" ideas throughout this lesson for suggestions of questions you might ask an engineer if you have access to one.

Introduction and Background Knowledge (15 min)

  • Start by discussing the VT PEERS Things to Know about Engineering and Engineers and highlight the items that will be illustrated by this lesson.
  • Students will be working through a scenario to save the bees through breakout boxes. This is meant to be a difficult problem requiring teamwork, an open mind, and willingness to try all sorts of solutions. 
  • Show the video from Eco Sapien and have students take notes on the 5 important things about bees. Go over the five important things, highlighting the words students need to solve their clues and being sure they write them down.
    • 5 important things about bees:
      • Food
      • Biodiversity
      • Fight Crime
      • Watchdogs
      • Ecosystem
  • Go over the attached Honey Bees Jobs Handout made by Project Neuron, and have groups match jobs and descriptions. This information will also be helpful with solving clues.

Breakout Boxes (30 min)

  • Read the Scenario:

An evil scientist wants to get rid of all the flowers and fruits in our community so people will buy his fake flowers and fruit flavored vitamins instead. His plan is to keep honey bees from pollinating them this spring by locking away the biggest hives so they cannot pollinate or gather nectar and water to support the hives. This diabolical act not only kills the flowers and fruits this year, it kills all the bees too.

The evil scientist doesn't think anyone can outsmart him. Are you up for the challenge? The video you watched had information about bees and how important they are. Your teacher and other bee lovers have left clues to help you find important bee facts that give you answers to unlock your boxes to save the bee hives.

Of course, getting the bees free is just the first step. After you have released the bees from their trap, you need to place them in a space that will ensure their survival. You will need to use your best engineering skills (teamwork, compromise/trade-offs, learning from mistakes, etc.) to develop a space that is good for bees and that meets the needs of the people who live there too.

You have 30 minutes to get your bees out before they all die in their trap. Good luck!!

  • Hand out a box and a clue to start each group (starting groups at different clues will help keep them circulating independently around the room). Point out hints around the room on the walls.
  • Point out that boxes are numbered and color-coded--important info for figuring out which hints around the room to use AND that each box has a different set of locks so paying too much attention to other groups will only delay your OWN box clue solving. 
  • Circulate around the room to guide students as needed with hints and managing locks. You can give students more or less instruction about the clues and hints at this point, depending on whether you think they can figure it out on their own or not. Often students who are used to knowing the answer right away at school are the ones who struggle most with this activity.
  • Once the hives have been rescued, depending on your class length, this can be a natural break in the activities to split the lesson between two days.
  • Allowing students to struggle in clue finding/solving is part of the process for this activity so as much as possible, allow some failure with frustration as students navigate this self-directed activity.
  • The set up for this lesson is TOUGH but the actual activity is surprisingly manageable even for a large group because teams are mostly independent.
  • Asking students to leave locks OPEN after they solve that lock clue and grouped together will assist in quicker box reset between classes.

Placing and Protecting the Hive (20 min)

  • Once students have opened all their locks and retrieved the beehive from their box, they need to build a community where the bees can be safe and where the people’s needs are also met. Students can learn about bees’ needs from the Bee Facts handout. 
  • Groups pick up their maps or poster board, markers, post-its, and the handout Building a Bee-safe Community, and return to their stations to build on or create a map depicting their own bee-safe community. It may help your students to have an example of what their map may look like--examples of what symbols can look like, etc.
  • Groups share their maps with the class. Discuss the solutions they came up with.
  • Have students consider the pros and cons of each element of the community before placing their hive.
  • Have students identify (with scaffolding if needed) how the people, the bees and plants will be supported/protected/impacted by a particular hive placement.
  • Discuss what they might change if they were the community design engineer and what they think that change would impact if they could.

Reflection and Assessment (15 min)

Ask students to think about how the activities from today might relate to engineering. Are bees something that comes to mind when they think of engineers? How was our work here today saving the bees like the work of engineers? (Teamwork, relying on many information sources, challenging, unclear problems that require tinkering to reach solutions)

Ask an Engineer: Did any of our activities today remind you of the work you do as an engineer?

Redirect students to the VT PEERS Things to Know about Engineering and Engineers covered in this lesson. Brainstorm with the class and the industry representative about how our lesson today relates to the highlighted points.

  • Everyone can learn to do engineering.
  • Engineers work with many types of people to understand problems and create solutions.
  • Engineers rely on knowledge from multiple subjects to understand all they can.
  • Solving engineering design problems requires compromise and trade-offs.

Potential questions for measuring learning with an exit ticket or discussion at the end of class: 

  • Write something you learned about engineering work that you didn’t know before.
  • Tell me something you learned about ecosystems today.
  • Why is it important to save the bees?
  • Why might an engineer need to think about a honey bee?