When it comes to swimming in cold water there are generally two schools of thought on how to start. You can ease yourself into the water, gradually acclimating to the temperature of the pool, or you can jump in and suffer the brief shock before quickly getting down to business.

If we are talking pools then I am very much in the former but for the first week of school I am in the latter. I try and start all of my classes with an activity, waking students up and setting expectations for active participation over the entire semester. Due to the popularity of its Introduction to Engineering (ENGI 120) Rice has added an additional section that I am responsible for. The course’s founder, Ann Saterbak, is in the same school of thought with regards to the first days of classes. For that reason this course begins with an team-based engineering challenge called the Marshmallow Challenge.

The Marshmallow Challenge is an engaging team building challenge with strong ties to the engineering and architecture field. The challenge is widely known most likely for its simple execution and wide applicability. There is even a TED talk (link at the bottom) about the challenge and the performance of specific cohorts: CEOs, kindergardeners, MBAs, engineers, etc.

To run the Marshmallow Challenge yourself collect:
20 spaghetti sticks
1 yd masking tape
1 yd string
1 marshmallow

Give yourself 18 minutes to build the tallest tower you can using the above components. The structure must be free-standing and the whole marshmallow should be on the top. Measure the height of your structure.

It’s ok to stop now and run the challenge. Know that reading the remainder of the post without running the challenge will give you a competitive advantage when you do finally get around to running it.

When we have run this challenge with students: prospective, freshman, engineers, it doesn’t matter; we observe almost the same result. Students spend on the order of 30 seconds discussing what to do, but really what happens is they spend 30 seconds figuring out who the alpha is so they can follow that person’s directions for the remainder of the time. Then they build for almost all of the time. In most cases the marshmallow makes it to the top of the structure sometime between when the facilitator calls “two minutes” and when the facilitator counts down “10…9…”

When time is called one thing is certain, every team has built a structure optimized for height. Few however have built a structure that was also optimized for load. The instructions clearly direct participants to build the tallest structure with a marshmallow on top. Students read the literal word “tallest” and focus on that point. Nowhere in the instructions are words like “rigid,” “load bearing,” or any other keyword that would explicitly state to the students “HEY, this structure has to be strong too!” This is the first teaching point of this challenge: coach the students to dig deeper into a set of instructions to find the hidden challenge. For the marshmallow challenge, it’s not about building the tallest tower, it’s about building the strongest tower that is also tall.

The second teaching point is one that I particularly emphasize in my engineering classes: the iterative nature of work. In reviewing the students’ approach to this challenge what we see is typically ONE version of the structure that takes on the order of 18 minutes to build (and then fail). Success in this challenge is most often assured when a completely different approach is taken: build multiple towers of increasing height, all that support the marshmallow as a minimum criteria. In watching the TED talk you’ll be surprised to see which group consistently uses that tactic to success.

The idea of iteration is one that is central to the Engineering Design Process and the workflow of many other professional’s careers. In ENGI 120 it is essential that the students develop multiple prototypes of their client-based solution, improving in each step. We use the failure in the Marshmallow Challenge as a shared experience to revisit with the class as a teaching point for how the students can iterate over a short period of time, namely a semester. The powerful teaching point for students is that no one, not even professionals, are capable of producing their best work in a first draft. Therefore the dominant strategy is to quickly produce working versions that can be gradually improved over time.

The main teaching point for everyone then is the question not how far can you go, but how fast can you iterate?

Watch the TED talk about the marshmallow challenge here.

Check out some of the pictures from this year’s ENGI 120 Marshmallow Challenge from the set on Flickr.

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