This lesson is adapted from the Marshmallow Challenge. Instructions in greater detail can be found at:
This is a great activity to do on the first day of class. It allows students to get to know each other while they are working on an engaging task. The marshmallow challenge is also a great first day activity because all students, regardless of their educational background or level, will be able to participate. It also stresses some of the skills you will want students to use when taking on some tasks you'll be giving them throughout the school year: creativity, innovation, and collaboration. In addition, there may be an opportunity here to collaborate across curriculum with a Technology and Engineering teacher at your school. To see more about what I love about the Marshmallow Challenge as a first day activity, watch this video!
Be sure to have a kit prepared for each group of students who will work on the challenge. Each kit will need:
- 20 pieces of spaghetti (uncooked)
- 1 yard of string
- 1 yard of masking tape
- 1 marshmallow
Begin class by letting students know that today they will be working the Marshmallow Challenge. A challenge that people of different ages, all over the world have taken on. You can divide the class into random groups of 4. Explain that their task is to build the biggest structure out of the materials given that will support one marshmallow on top. They will have 18 minutes to complete the task. You should present the instructions verbally and in writing on a Smartboard or projector.
I set a timer for 18 minutes and let students get to work! If I remember a camera, I take photos as I circulate around the room. I call out the remaining time at regular intervals. At a few points in the process, I remind students that they will NOT be able to hold their marshmallow when the timer goes off - it must be on the structure without being held by any teammates.
When the timer goes off, I walk around the room and measure any structures that are standing. I also give students a little time to check out the other structures. I identify the winning team. I like to give a prize for the winner.
Next, I ask students the following question:
What age group of people do they think would build the tallest structure?
I also ask them to justify their answer. After letting a few students share, I take a poll of the results. Then, I show the TedTalk video to the students.
I stop the video around 1:50 and ask students, "How many of your groups fell into this category of typical group process?" I also stop the video again at 2:15 after the point about kindergartners who perform the task well. I ask students, "Why do you think this might be so? What is it about young children that make them well suited to the task?"
After watching a little further into the video, I plan to connect the idea of kindergartners using prototypes with SMP #1: Making sense of problems and persevering in solving them. I can place special emphasis on the point about students "continually asking themselves 'Does this make sense?'"
If time allows, I show students the full video. They may be interested in the piece about what happens when a reward is offered. This can lead to some fruitful discussion as well.
The purpose of today's lesson is two-fold. One is to get students working together in groups. The other is to help them see problem solving in a different way. To that end, I plan to ask two reflection questions for students to write about at the end of class. Two possible questions are:
1. Describe one way that your group worked well together today.
2. What did you learn from this activity that might apply to solving math problems in the future?
Instructional Note: I like to have students write exit tickets on index cards.