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Let’s get this school year started with marshmallows

August 18, 2010

Today was the first day of school, and always during the week or two before school starts this recurring nightmare of being the boring teacher reading through my syllabus on day 1. “Late work will be penalized 20%, you must see me about excused absences in advance.

Luckily, this nightmare has never come true.

This year, I started my 3 physics classes off with the Marshmallow Challenge: take 20 pieces of spagetthi, 1 meter of tape, 1 meter of string, and 1 marshmallow. Along with the other students in your group, design and build the tallest freestanding tower that will support the marshmallow on the top. You have 18 minutes—GO!

For the curious, here’s the very short powerpoint I used to intro it.

And just like that, within 30 seconds everyone in the classroom is up, active, and thinking, while we rock out to Here Comes Science by They Might be Giants. The student’s progress was amazing. Some groups spent the whole time laying out elaborate structures of pasta, never touching the marshmallow, only to watch the marshmallow topple their tower in the final few seconds. Being a private prep school, my students took the challenge super seriously, and you could see the pressure building on some of them as time ticked away.

In the end, the TED video describing the challenge was a perfect summary (an only 7 minutes long): those that do best, fail the most. They try lots of different things, and they take the weight of the marshmallow head on. We had a great discussion about what are the hidden assumptions that might impede their progress in physics, and the winning statement of the day was:

Focusing on the getting a good grade might distract me from really understanding the material.

Wow! It’s going to be a good year.

Note to self: here’s a great post by Eric Brunsell describing how he modified the the marshmallow assignment. And a quick note from him on how he might have modified his own work:

Thanks for the comment. It went really well. I would do it a bit differently next time (perhaps I should include this as an update). By having small groups build first instead of going straight to whole class inquiry, the small group that had the best tower became the leaders. The class (18) clustered around their group and gave suggestions instead of having multiple groups trying different things.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2011 3:55 pm

    ausome!!! ima say that to my teacher and see if we can do that!!!!

  2. October 24, 2011 3:56 pm


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