The Leaning Tower of Marshmallow?!?

Buon giorno e Benvenuti! Today, I will be sharing my classes' adventures with the Leaning Tower of Marshmallow! No, of course there isn't really a Leaning Tower of Marshmallow (although my class did create one), but as many of you know there is a Leaning Tower of Pisa located in the quaint town of Pisa, Italy. Now, being that this slanted tower is something to marvel at, we just had to learn about it in our studies of European World Wonders.

To teach about this inclined tower, I turned to the trusty EdHelper website in search of articles to share with my students. I only found one article that would be suitable for my students and had to edit the article to simplify the vocabulary, but it was very informative and just what I needed. We read the article as a class and discussed its construction, inclination, and preservation.  Fortunately, I also got to share personal pictures of my visit to the Leaning Tower of Pisa to show just how tilted it really is. And yes, one of the pictures included the trademark touristy photo you just gotta take in which you "hold up" the tower to support it from falling. :)

Now, at the same time that my students and I were studying the Leaning Tower, I attended a professional development on creativity which engaged myself and fellow teachers in an activity called "The Marshmallow Challenge". This challenge was meant to be used as an icebreaker and team building activity, but I saw it as a perfect culminating activity for our study of the Leaning Tower. Therefore, I decided to engage my students in this challenge which requires them to compete to see who could build the tallest tower using only uncooked spaghetti, a marshmallow, some string and tape. It was perfect for our topic! It would require students to think about designing a sturdy structure with a strong foundation.

Click {HERE} to download a FREE handout of the materials and rules that you can provide each team for "The Marshmallow Challenge" and click {HERE} to visit Tom Wujec's website to read more information and see additional  pictures of the challenge.

Preview of the FREE handout.

In the spirit of friendly competition and collaborative teamwork, my team teacher and I combined our classes for this challenge. To begin, we divided the students into small groups of 4-5 students (the challenge calls for groups of four, but we had to make the adjustment to fit our number of students). Then, we selected one team member from each group to count out the spaghetti sticks, another to retrieve the marshmallow, a third to measure and cut the string, and a fourth to measure and cut the tape. (As you can see, this activity can also help students practice their measuring skills.)

Once each group had all of their materials at their table, we introduced students to the rules of the challenge, gave each group a sheet of paper to plan, and started the timer for 18 minutes.
To allow students to track their time, I projected the large stopwatch from the website online stopwatch on the board. Click {HERE} to check it out.  

The kids were so excited about the challenge and began planning, discussing, and building right away! However, as my team teacher and I walked around, we realized that a lot of students were not careful with their materials and began breaking spaghetti sticks and cutting string before they tested out their design. Before they knew it, they needed longer sticks and longer string and nothing could be done. 
The rules state you cannot get additional materials. Other students were not using their materials wisely and were using parts of the spaghetti to "decorate" the marshmallow (sticking pieces of spaghetti into the sides of the marshmallow).

Before long, time was up and not one tower could sustain itself freestanding. The students were devastated.
Although things did not go as we had hoped, I didn't want to give up or let the students give up on the challenge. So, we scrapped all of the materials and designs and reflected on the experience. 

What went wrong? Why didn't the towers stand? How could we use our materials more wisely? What makes a strong and sturdy foundation? What could they do to support the weight of the marshmallow at the top of the tower?

As a class, we discussed these questions. We talked about caring for our materials and testing them out before breaking or cutting them. My team teacher and I also showed the students examples of tall structures with sturdy foundations (i.e. the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle) and discussed what they had in common that allowed them to remain standing. We discussed weight distribution (i.e. having more weight at the bottom of the structure to support the weight on top) and adding more than one or two bases to help support the structure.

Finally, after our discussion, we asked the teams to get a new set of materials and began the challenge again. For their second attempt, we provided the students with more time ( 30 minutes vs. 18 minutes) to allow them time to really think out their design plans and build.

Scroll down to see pictures of the students' Marshmallow Challenge process during their second attempt.

Planning phase:

Construction phase:

As you can see, the students were still giving their 100% and working as a team during the second attempt.
I was so proud of their determination and hard work. Just as I expected, this second attempt was a SUCCESS!
Out of all the teams, only two teams' towers did not remain standing for judgment (measurement) and one team's tower fell at the last minute, but everyone else was able to build a freestanding marshmallow tower!

Check out some of the towers that stood the test of time:

 Here is our second place winner which stood at a proud 16" tall:

and FINALLY.... 
Our 1st place prize went to the following team which had a tower standing at an impressive 19" tall:

In the end, my team teacher and I were very proud of all of the teams. Despite a failed first attempt, the students did not give up and put forth even more effort on their second attempt. They showed tremendous teamwork and it paid off.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about our adventure with the "Marshmallow Challenge" and consider letting your students take part in the challenge in your very own classroom. 

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