Back-to-School Marshmallow Spaghetti Tower Challenge!

I was first introduced to this activity during the MIT Media Lab Learning Creative Learning course. There are a few variations, such as limiting the amount of resources or including tape, but for my students’ first day of sixth grade, I let chaos reign.
I gave each group a package of dry spaghetti, three small bags of marshmallows, and the simplest rules I could think of:
1 Build the tallest structure you can.
2 You may only use the materials I gave you.
3 We’ll measure after 60 minutes.

The primary objective was to get comfortable with each other in our learning space. They made a huge mess and laughed a lot, so that goal was achieved. However, this exercise has implications in many learning domains:
Collaboration
The more a group shares and synthesizes ideas, the taller and stronger their tower becomes.
Engineering
This is an authentic inquiry into materials and structures. All of the students’ reflections mention ‘balance’ and being frustrated when their building materials broke or didn’t perform as expected. Every group deduced that triangles are the most stable shape and one group even built a base of four square pyramids.
Research
Every group spent at least some time searching for solutions online.
Planning
Another common theme in reflections referred to the need to think ahead and plan more. Comparing structures at the finale was a terrific visible thinking exercise.
In retrospect, I would limit building materials more in the future, but the activity was a blast and set the stage perfectly for the sorts of independent inquiry and exploration our school year will emphasize.
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Published by

Bart Miller

Father, Teacher, Composer, Philosopher

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