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Return of the Marshmallow Challenge!

Back by popular demand, I ended our school year with “The Marshmallow Challenge”.  I first tried this activity two years ago, after watching an inspiring TED Talk by Tom Wujec.  The Marshmallow Challenge is a team-building exercise where groups of 2-3 have 18 minutes to try to build the tallest freestanding structure – using just 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of masking tape, one yard of string, and a marshmallow.  And all kinds of learning happens in the process!  This would make a great team-building activity for the beginning of the school year, too!

Materials (per group of 2-3):
  • 20 sticks of spaghetti (uncooked!)
  • one yard of masking tape (stick down on edge of desk)
  • one yard of string
  • one pair scissors
  • one regular size marshmallow
(I put all the materials for each group in a large clasp envelope (except for the tape!), and glued a 9×12 piece of construction paper to the front – a different color for each group.  This made passing out supplies quick and easy!)

You will also need:
  • a large digital timer (I downloaded mine from bald geeks.com)
  • measuring tape
  • music (optional – I made a playlist on iTunes of 5 songs that would end at exactly the moment the time was up!)
Directions (repeat 2-3 times to make sure everyone understands!)

1. Divide students randomly into “teams” of 2-3.

2. Explain that they will have 18 minutes to use the materials in the envelope to try to build the tallest freestanding structure.  (“Freestanding” means it cannot be taped down, and you can’t be holding it when the time runs out – it must be able to stand on its own.)  Make sure they understand that you will be measuring  to the top of the marshmallow.

3.Start the timer!  (While students are working, I walk around and make sure they are understanding the directions.  I will also announce things like, “The orange group has a structure standing!” or, “Five minutes!”  Then everyone counts down together from “ten” down.

4. When the time is up, measure the structures that are standing and announce the winner.  Have students give a round of applause (or a “standing” ovation) to all the groups with structures standing.

5. Ask students what they learned… what was the most challenging thing about this and why?  

There is so much to be learned from this activity…. sportsmanship, teamwork, not being misled by “false assumptions” (like the marshmallow being “light”!), and the importance of testing your prototypes.  I did this with grades K-7, and even some adults wanted to give it a try…. just tailor your discussion at the end to the age group you’re working with.  If you can, watch the TED talk first for even more insight into why this is such a valuable exercise!

Here are a few pictures… try to guess which grades they go with!

Yes, those last two are from my adorable Kinders…. they may not have been the tallest structures, but they were standing, and they would definitely score points for cuteness!

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