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2nd year reflections on the marshmallow challenge

August 17, 2011

I really love starting the year with the Marshmallow challenge. I randomly divide my students into groups by handing out numbered cards, and almost before they sit down, I tell them the rules of the challnege and put 18 minutes on the clock, all while listening to They Might Be Giants’ Here Comes Science in the background (one of my favorite albums). This year a number of my students did this project in 8th grade, and I was slightly worried that this might make it less fun or useful for my students, which couldn’t be further from the case.

I used the same very basic keynote I used the year before:

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Once we finished, we watched the accompanying TED talk, which in my opinion is a must watch if you do the challenge. There’s just too much good stuff in the video worth unpacking.

Here are some of the ideas and questions that we raised:

  • How do kindergartners become MBAs? In the video, the designer of the challenge commented that kindergartners built taller towers than MBA students, and they do this because 5 year olds aren’t looking for the “one right answer”, and are more willing to play and experiment. I asked the question, how do Kindergarteners grow up to be MBAs? How can you lose your ability to make marshmallow towers? And that led to a good conversation about how too much emphasis on the right answer and not enough emphasis on prototyping and making mistakes can lead to an MBA mentality. Which led me to ask—”you guys are almost exactly midway between Kindergarten and an MBA. Where are you on the Kindergartener/MBA spectrum?”
  • Design is a contact sport. This great quote led to a conversation about what else is a contact sport? Math, English? We decided that everything should be a contact sport. You need to engage physics with experiments and effort, you can’t sit by and passively learn it.
  • High Stakes. Students picked up very quickly on the observation that high stakes and novice skills leads to disastrous results of no towers standing. This brought up a great question of how can we lower the stakes in our class, since most students are physics novices? And I asked students to think carefully about what they can do to lower the stakes, since they have a large responsibility in this as well.
  • The need to define terms. We had one group that decided to suspend the marshmallow on a string. Some other groups instantly accused them of cheating, and then some arguments of the word “freestanding” ensued. To me, it was a great moment to talk about why we need to define our terms in science.
7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2011 11:04 pm

    Huh. Thanks for planning my first day for me. I’m stealing the whole thing. It’s like SBG concentrate.

  2. August 23, 2012 2:01 pm

    Thanks for sharing this! Several teachers in our middle school are kicking off our design heavy science classes with this activity. I love the quote near the end where Mr. Wujec refers to the MMC as a “prototype experience.” That’s what science/school should be all about.

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