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I recall doing a team building exercise where a team of about 4 people needed to balance a teeter totter, so that neither of the ends was touching the ground. They could achieve this by having the team members move to different parts of the teeter totter. Here there was a plywood board (about 4m by 2m) centred on top of a log (diameter about 30cm with length about 2m).

I was wondering what is the best way (according to physics) to balance that teeter totter. I thought it would be best to have everyone move to the opposite ends of the teeter totter. In this case each person has the largest moment possible and any differences caused by imperfections in the system would be less significant than if everyone was at the centre.

In typical physics problems we assume a perfect system where you can easily calculate the moments of each person and balance their moments. However, here imperfections in the system are what make this task more challenging (warped board, imperfect fulcrum, humans having a mass distribution, etc).

Can you offer any better solutions for balancing the teeter totter with all team members participating. For example having everyone at the centre, having people lying down on the teeter totter, having all but one person on the outside with one person at the centre to move and balance the beam.

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Unfortunately this doesn't have an answer due to the many variables, so is a trial and error activity which is designed to be extremely difficult on purpose. Often the permanent set ups have water inside to add a level of difficulty as the water moves, changing the balance point constantly. As an instructor of this type of activity, I know that it is designed to bring out team work objectives, not be pass or fail as such.

My experience with this is that there are some 'tips' but they are general and do not guarantee success. These are;

  • Keep a low centre of gravity. If there are 4 personnel, get 3 to lay down quite close to the middle so their weight is distributed and negligible.
  • Only move 1 person at a time, in one direction. Moving one way and then trying to 'catch the balance' by moving back will not work.
  • The moving person should be low also, sitting and maintaining their stance, shuffling slightly at a time.
  • The moving person should be the lightest person to minimise changes.

As stated though, there is no specific science, it is a task which isn't necessarily designed to be achieved. I have only seen it accomplished a hand full of times and those groups got less out of it than those that failed.

Hope that helps.

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