Marshmallow Challenge

Marshmallow ChallengeThe Marshmallow Challenge is a fun activity that encourages students to work together and to develop strategies in order to solve a complex problem.  I have used the Marshmallow Challenge on the very first day of school and on the second day of school.  However, I believe it also fits in nicely on the day before a long holiday or at any other time that fits your schedule.

The Challenge

Teams of four students are given a marshmallow, 20 pieces of spaghetti, a yard of string, and a yard of tape.  Their task is to create the tallest free-standing structure that can hold the marshmallow on top in a given period of time.  I use 20 minutes in my classroom although the TED Talk video that I will refer you to only suggests 18 minutes.  Use your own judgment on the length of time.

Why Assign the Marshmallow Challenge?

There are a number of reasons why I use the Marshmallow Challenge in my classroom.  First of all, the Marshmallow Challenge is a complex problem that involves the consideration of many factors.  What is the best design structure for the spaghetti tower?  Do students realize the strength of triangles in building structures?  (Don’t tell them!)  How should the marshmallow be secured, or should it?  What is the best way to use the tape?  the string?  Are students allowed to tape things to the desk that they are working on?  (I let them.) These factors are similar in nature to the types of questions our students will ask when we present a problem to them in class.

Secondly, I want to see how my students will communicate and work together as a team.  Who steps up as a leader?  Who prefers to listen thoughtfully but is still able to provide valuable input?  Who tries to slide by with as little contribution as possible?  Especially if you decide to implement this activity at the beginning of the school year, you will gain valuable initial insights into the ways that your new students operate.

I am also interested to see what strategies the team devises to complete the Marshmallow Challenge.  As you will see when you watch the video, often students put all of their eggs into one basket by implementing only one strategy and then testing its success seconds before the timer runs out.  This is a recipe for disaster and many groups will end up with their marshmallow at a height of zero inches (sitting on the desk).

Finally, the kids have FUN!!  There is a lot of talk, high energy, and the 20 minutes seem to disappear so quickly.

Marshmallow Challenge Results

A number of my student groups waited until right before the time was up to test their strategy and see if their tower could support the marshmallow.  Many crashed to the desktop.  Other groups had varying levels of success.  After completing the activity with six classes I believe that my highest supportive tower was about 24 inches tall.

The Marshmallow Challenge Video

I have embedded the TED Talk video below or you can play it directly from YouTube.  I recommend not watching it until AFTER your students have completed the task so that you do not end up subconsciously directing them to try certain strategies.  I watched it after my students had completed the challenge and then showed it to my students the following day.

There are several key question that you can discuss with your class that the video will help to clarify.

  • Why do kindergarten students often perform better than recent business school graduates on this task?
  • How well did your group function as a team?  What worked well?  What could be improved?
  • If you were to take the Marshmallow Challenge again, what would you do differently?
  • How is the Marshmallow Challenge like solving a complex problem in math class?

Marshmallow Challenge Takeaways

One of my greatest takeaways from this activity is that when students problem solve it is helpful to teach them to evaluate their efforts along the way.  Don’t allow them to follow an action all the way to its end before discovering that their efforts were misdirected.

As discussed in the video, this is the reason that kindergarteners often outperformed business school graduates.  Kindergarteners tested their process along the way and made revisions on the go while the business school graduates often committed to follow a single plan until the end, and only then did they discover that they had failed the task.

Middle School Math Marshmallows

As a middle school math teacher I enjoyed presenting this challenge to my students.  It is an activity that is a bit “out of the box” and the students enjoy the challenge and the competition.  You might consider having your students attempt the challenge a second time later in the year to see if they will put their previous learning and experience together to achieve better results.

Are you ready for your students to take the Marshmallow Challenge?

For more information about the Marshmallow Challenge, as well as the pdf slides from Tom Wujec’s TED Talk presentation, visit the Marshmallow Challenge website.

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