INTRODUCTION:  I have been involved in New Student Orientation programs for many years.  New college students are often nervous about setting foot on a college campus for the first time and preoccupied with how others perceive them. Traditional orientation programs do little to address these common concerns. Instead, new students typically sit passively while they are bombarded with information about rules, policies and college resources. Many students leave these sessions more confused and concerned than when they first arrived.

I wanted to actively involve new students who attend our New Student Orientation and help them meet and become comfortable with some of their new classmates.  I also wanted them to begin thinking about the differences between high school and college, especially the need for them to be actively involved in their classes and campus life. To achieve these ends, I decided to try a creative brainstorming activity called “Straws,” which I learned at a California Association of Student Councils Leadership Conference (C.A.S.C.). This activity works with groups as large as one hundred, and I have modified it numerous times throughout my career to address a variety of topics, including the importance of tutoring programs, the qualities of an effective leader, and, at a workshop for new faculty, the importance of using a variety of teaching tools in a classroom setting. The total time for this activity is about 60 minutes.

PURPOSE: To help entering students to…

  • Meet fellow students (serve as an icebreaker)
  • Begin thinking about how college will be different from high school
  • Create expectation for active learning throughout the students’ college experience


  • A large meeting room set with tables for 8
  • 100 paper-wrapped straws for each group
  • One roll of tape for each group
  • A microphone/PA system for the reporting phase of the activity (if the group is large)
  • A whiteboard or transparency projector for recording student ideas
  • A handout for all students: “Discussion Topics” (See Support Materials below)
  • Staff members to assist during the activity
  • Awards


1.  Welcome the students and have them participate in an initial icebreaker (e.g., a scavenger hunt where they have to collect signatures from other new students). At the end of the icebreaker, ask them to sit at a table with people they do not know. This will create groups of eight.

2.  Say, “Today we are going to identify the differences between high school and college.  Now, you probably know that college will be different from high school, but you may not have thought about how. At each table there are 100 straws and one roll of scotch tape.  Your group will have 12 minutes to create something that illustrates the difference between high school and college.  At the end of this activity a panel of college staff members will choose the most creative symbol of the difference between high school and college, and the winning group will be awarded prizes. [Address any questions.]  Please begin.”

3. During the building phase of the activity, periodically announce the time remaining.  Place handouts with the Discussion Topics on the tables in preparation for the next step.

4. After 12 minutes, announce, “Time is up.  Please stop building.  Look around at all the great things you have created!  On your table you will find handouts with three topics to discuss in your group. You have 10 minutes for your discussion; make sure you introduce yourselves if you haven’t already done so, and note where you went to high school. The spokesperson you choose will present your object to the entire group.”

5.  After 10 minutes, announce, “Spokespersons from each table, please come to the front of the room with the object your group created.”  Give each spokesperson up to one minute to present his or her group’s creation to the entire group.  Encourage students to applaud after each presentation. As important differences between high school and college are mentioned in each presentation, emphasize them by repeating and elaborating on them.  For example, “Yes, it is so true that you need to be a very active learner in college. What are some of the things that active learners do?” or “You’re so right that college instructors are going to expect you to read all assignments before coming to class. They’re not going to keep reminding you.”  Record ideas on a white board for all to see.

6.  The panel of “judges” (college faculty, staff, or Peer Advisors) now convenes to choose a winner. We give each winning team member a gift certificate to our campus bookstore.

7. Close the session: “As you can see from the many ideas that were presented here today by your peers, college will definitely be different from high school.  We hope you enjoyed participating in this activity and getting to meet some of your future classmates. Most important, realize that this is just the first of many times that you will be actively involved in learning here on our campus.”


When I did this activity at a recent orientation, most of the students hesitated at the start. Some of the male students, in particular, did not appear eager to engage in such a playful task, and they just stared at the supplies.  However, in the end, the groups with mostly male students ended up doing the best job of building a complex symbol.  At some tables, the students picked up a straw or two, and started tearing off the paper.  Some groups started cutting pieces of scotch tape and building their objects, even though it was clear they didn’t really know where they were headed- they just knew they had to get started and build something!  Once the students saw what other groups were building, they became more animated.  An atmosphere of competition began to evolve, especially when the students were told, “You have 8 minutes left,” or “You have 4 minutes left.” 

High school students are infamous for finding everything “boring.”  Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised at how they responded.  I was excited to see the long line of students at the front of the room displaying the objects their groups had created.  The spokespersons did an excellent job of explaining what their groups had created and what their creations symbolized.  One straw creation depicted a high school that resembled a prison, symbolizing how little freedom they had in high school as contrasted with the freedom they anticipated in college.  Another creation depicted dollar signs, which symbolized that now that they were paying for their education and could not afford to waste time.

Throughout the activity, I was pleased to see incoming students who did not know each other begin to work together, create wonderful structures, and then get up in front of their peers and teach each other how to prepare for the new challenges of college.


Most of the students in attendance at the New Student Orientation session that day knew few other students when they arrived.  This activity enabled them to work together with seven other students on a fun task, thereby breaking down barriers and making new friends. During the activity I walked around the room to observe the groups and inquired whether they had met new people, and the majority responded that they had, indeed, met students from other high schools.  Whereas most of the students had arrived on campus alone that morning, as they headed to their next session, they walked together in small groups, engaged in animated conversations.

The activity reinforced the idea that college would be different from high school, and identified some of the things they would need to do to be successful in this new environment.  During the presentations, group reporters commented that they knew and were excited about the fact that college would be a different experience from high school.  Many noted that they had felt limited in high school to really explore career and academic options, because it had been such a highly structured environment.  They expressed enthusiasm at the opportunity to start fresh and to take more responsibility for their learning and academic success.

I believe this activity also set an expectation that students would be required to participate actively in their college experience. One of our college administrators stood outside the door when the workshop ended and noted, in amazement, the high level of excitement and energy that was coming from the new students.  They were laughing, smiling and high-fiving each other as they left the session.  She commented how pleased she was that we had been successful in helping to create a more hand-on, interactive orientation session for new students. Our hope is that exposing students to an active learning experience on their first day will help them realize that their college instructors will expect them to engage actively in their academic studies as well.


The best part of this activity was hearing new students telling each other what the differences would be between high school and college.  We didn’t have to lecture them.  Instead, they took an active role and taught each other.  Hearing them exhort each other to take college seriously was priceless! We could not have taught the lesson any better ourselves.


Discussion Topics:

1. Discuss as a group what you built and how it symbolizes what you think will be the biggest difference between high school and college.

2. Given the differences you have listed between high school and college, identify what you need to do to make sure you’re successful in college.

3. Select a spokesperson who will present your creation to everyone and explain what it symbolizes.

You have 10 minutes to complete this discussion. After the presentations, the winning group will receive gift certificates to the campus Bookstore! 

–Sharon Padilla-Alvardo, Coordinator, Tutoring Center, Cosumnes River College, CA

Forum Image OptionStraws – A Learner-Centered Orientation Forum