My department (engineering) is hosting a day-long open house event soon, and I have been asked to prepare an ice-breaker/trivia type activity for 30 minutes between a couple of sessions. Could anyone recommend some activities of this nature that have worked well in the past?
My experience with engineers is going to suggest "hallway meetings" with beverages and food and a place where the people from the uni can mix with the people visiting. Maybe the uni folk wear name badges. If it's early in the day, then coffee, tea, fruit juice, and light food. Bagels and other simple finger food. If it's the end of the day then beer (with non-alcohol beverages available) and simple food like cheese or pizza etc.
If you have no budget, maybe you have to charge for the beer. Or maybe beer does not work for various reasons, depending on the culture and legal situation. YMMV.
The beverages and food get everybody in one place, near the table where you get the food. The folk who want to ask questions can do so. So after the formal session on the great-big-lab-equipment-demo, then everybody wanders in the hallway for a half hour, with a coffee and a bagel or whatever. People can walk around and say "Hi, I'm so-and-so from other-place and I was very interested to know about your research." That usually occupies at least a half hour.
If you wanted to give such sessions some structure, you could appoint some official hosts. These folk could be tasked with finding people just standing alone and idle and going over to ask if there was anybody from the uni they would like to meet. "Hi! I'm a designated host." Shows badge. "Was there anybody you wanted to meet? Or any questions you wanted to ask?" "Oh, Prof Big-Name is right over here. Let me introduce you." "Oh, Prof Big-Name is busy. But I see the department head Prof Suave isn't busy. Want to meet her?"
When the next event is about to start, the designated hosts could act as herders, and guide everybody to the next location.
I suspect that such a scheme would work pretty well for other university departments as well. Most people like to have the chance to "hob-knob" with people working in the subject they are interested in. And having a coffee and a croissant while you chat is always pleasant.
I've attended many conferences, and in my experience, classical icebreakers are quite boring. People just stand around with drinks and snacks and might talk to people they already know, if at all.
The one exception is when we had a table tennis tournament. Which was great. Table football works too. A great opportunity to become buddies, in particular with your teammate.
Create a "Play" so that the participants are the "actors". Give each one a script, perhaps with a single "line". Perhaps their line should be repeated several times when pointed to by the "director" or another actor.
In computing I did this with the song "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly" since it emphasizes recursion and gave each actor the opportunity to give their line several times. After each verse a new actor would join in to start the next.
Perhaps you can think up something similar with an engineering focus.
Perhaps something also recursive that goes through an engineering thought process with the anchor line "Let's get coffee."
I'd recommend an engineer-adapted version of human bingo. Participants get bingo sheets with prompts instead of numbers (e.g. "drinks more than 3 cups of coffee a day","has seen every episode of Star Trek: TNG","can juggle") and need to put down a person's name for each one. No re-using one name multiple times; first n people to get a bingo win a free beer/coffee/candy bar. In my experience, the reward doesn't matter much: it's more about incentivising people to talk to each-other and giving them some semi-generic low stakes conversation topics (hobbies, pop culture, "nerd stuff"). You can also tailor a few questions to your local town/campus traditions- my suggested prompts are from versions we used for physics (grad) students.
Since you only have 30 minutes, I'd recommend a 3x4 or 4x4 bingo depending on the group size, with a few specific/difficult questions (e.g. "has a black belt in a martial art") if you're worried about people finishing early. Or give a bonus prize for completionists ;)