Can we eat the marshmallow now?

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Students will be able to: 1) identify discrete steps that will lead to a solution to the Marshmallow Challenge; 2) effectively collaborate with each other to develop a prototype solution to the Marshmallow Challenge; 3) persevere in developing a solution to the Marshmallow Challenge even though there is no single correct solution; and 4) discuss each others' ideas about the habits of engineering design collaboration using evidence from the Marshmallow Challenge.

Big Idea

Collaborative engineering design thinking is a key skill for STEM fields. How might we effectively collaborate to successfully participate in a design challenge?

UNIT FRAME: "Unit 0"

What is the purpose of the lesson in this "unit 0"?

"We are all engineers, designers, and scientists."  This is a key message I want to deliver to my students during this first unit.  And I believe that students are most able to understand this message if they are given opportunities to practice engineering design thinking and science early and often.  An example of how these practices fit together in the language of standards can be seen here.  

As such, the lessons in my "unit 0"  bring students into my process of designing classroom procedures and policies.  We will engage in engineering design thinking.  We will empathize. We will define problems. We will ideate solutions. We will prototype. We will test.  We will iterate. These are skills valued by the Next Generation Science Standards: "Strengthening the engineering aspects of the Next Generation Science Standards will clarify for students the relevance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the four STEM fields) to everyday life." A primary objective for this curriculum, then, is to add engineering design thinking skills to students' extant experimental design toolkit so that they are able to connect STEM experiences to their personal lives.

My goal is to learn as much as possible about my students' experiences in school and to use these complex funds of knowledge to drive the co-creation of our shared classroom environment.  My goal for my students is for them to engage with the world as designers and scientists, to realize that they have real agency.

We will share authority; this is our space.  I hope that students look forward to this class, that they demonstrate an interest in learning, that they proactively seek collaborative learning opportunities, that they gain confidence in the practices of engineering and science, and that they respectfully navigate the diverse opinions within the classroom.  My essential teacher move, then, is to bring them into the process of designing our class from the very beginning.

My other important teacher move is the consistent cultivation of ambiguity.  Students will not know if their ideas are "right."  Rather, we will question each other to define problems, identify constraints for solutions, define successful outcomes, and select methods for measuring success.  I expect my students to conduct their share of the cognitive work during our shared design processes.

By the end of the second week of school, we will have co-designed plans to address student behavior, technology use, grading, work completion, the classroom environment, and successful learning strategies.  There will be a full syllabus for this class, but students will not see it until the third week of school.  At this point, we will have created a document that reflects the expectations we have designed for our learning experience this year.  

NOTE:  My school is generous enough to give me time before introducing a formal syllabus.  I know that situations differ.  However, even if a syllabus must be given on the first day of school, I believe that the practices of this unit 0 could still be used to more concretely define classroom rules.

What do I want to learn from implementation of this "unit 0"?

Some important questions I continue to ask of my own practice as I develop my abilities to better facilitate students' learning through engineering design processes are:

  • What are the key questions to ask my students to most effectively guide their understanding?
  • How can I structure activities in a way that minimizes direct instruction so that students have authentic opportunities to engage with engineering design processes?
  • Are there authentic opportunities for students to proactively collaborate with each other during learning activities?
  • How can I share more authority with my students in determining the most high-leverage examples of content that embody students’ complex funds of knowledge?
  • Does the classroom experience consistently incorporate student voice? How will students determine their success with any given learning task?
  • Are students better able to critically evaluate the world from an engineering and science framework after a learning activity?
  • Are students better able to engage with their communities as agents of positive change because of their experiences in my course?
  • How can I make the engineering design framework accessible and sticky.


  • The attached article by Randy Bass of Georgetown explores what I am calling the "engineering design thinking framework" as it applies to problems of practice in teaching. It is a great piece for thinking about the "why" of curriculum design and classroom learning.
  • This presentation from a student perspective of "expectations of school" neatly captures the intent of a Unit 0 dedicated to the engineering design thinking framework. 

FRAME: First day teacher moves

For this course, my first teacher move is to demystify myself as the "sage on the stage" from day one. Instead of telling students what they will do, I have structured the first day of class as a day of doing.  There will be some direct instruction, but students will spend most of the time engaging in a design challenge and reflecting on the collaborative nature of this design challenge.  This fits into my larger conception of this course as a pathway towards increased student-led citizen science work in the Sunset Park community through exploration of the Spaceship Earth concept.

Another teacher move I am making is to think of the first day of class as a diagnostic assessment.  I will note student seating preferences, student behaviors, student collaboration styles, student persistence, student familiarity with engineering design, and so on.  I will purposefully limit my intervention, instead choosing to observe what students naturally do in the classroom environment.

This disposition will extend to the reflective discussion at the end of the lesson.  I will ask probing questions and clarify my understanding of what I am hearing, but I will limit my interpretation of student comments and will not provide a neat summary of what students should have learned.  I want to communicate to my students that they are the experts of what they are experiencing, that their voice matters, and that their interpretations are just as valid as my own.  In short, I aim to model the democratic, but structured, nature of the engineering design process.  As the course unfolds, we will, of course, develop a more formal understanding of the design process, but initially I want students to understand that they are, to borrow a phrase I have heard in many design thinking workshops, "exactly where they need to be."

For some background on why I am starting with engineering design, here is an article detailing emergent thinking about teaching design within engineering curricula at the college level.  As my current students will be attending college in the next two years, I hope to develop learning experiences for my students that align to the college experience.  This experience increasingly incorporates engineering design thinking, problem-based learning, democratic pedagogy, and iterative learning practices.  

Finally, attached is a short video of my empty classroom for some perspective of where this work will take place this year.

Seats and names and hashtags

8 minutes

TEACHER RESOURCES:  Pictures of the Manhattan Bridge are to be displayed at the front of the room.

What will the teacher do?

I will great students as they enter the room and tell them that they have three tasks to complete in 8 minutes. All are described on the whiteboard at the front of the room. Each tasks has specific constraints.  I will purposefully use the word "constraints" so that my students develop engineering design vocabulary immediately.  I will define it in parentheses as a "limitation or restriction."

I will provide a four minute, two minute, and one minute warning.  I will raise my hand to bring the class to attention with the expectation that students that see me will raise a hand and that the class will be silent and focused on me when all hands are raised.  This is one of the standard protocols at my school.  I will remind students of its purpose and practice it briefly if necessary before moving onto the next part of the lesson.

What will students do?

Task 1: Occupy a lab seat.  I teach in a lab room with three clusters of three lab stations around a central sink.  Six are designated as an official lab station with large numbered signs.

Constraints:  Only lab seats at numbered stations are available to students; lab seats stay in place; students choose a seat; students may not occupy the fifth seat at a lab station unless all six lab stations have at least four students; students may briefly discuss a preference with another student; choices should be made as quickly as possible, as seating assignments are temporary.

Task 2: Create a name tag on provided 5x8 index cards.  There will be five cards at each lab station.  Expected name tag design will be at each station as a sixth card displaying information about the teacher.

Constraints: This is a silent activity; on the top of the card include your full name as is appears on the class roster; include your preferred first name underneath your full name; below your name include a pronunciation guide if your name has traditionally been difficult for other people to pronounce (What words does it sound like? How do you want your classmates and teacher to pronounce vowels?); finally, draw a symbol, picture, or word that represents you in the white space remaining on your card.

Task 3:   Examine the two displayed pictures of the Manhattan Bridge from two periods in the history of New York City and write three hashtags that explain what you observe of these two pictures.

Constraints:  This is a silent activity; hashtags are written on the back of the card; hashtags must represent observations of both pictures.

We are all designers

10 minutes

Standards: SL.11-12.1

TEACHER RESOURCES:  The included picture is what a whiteboard should include for the mini-lesson.  Another version can be found here.

How will I transition from the opening activity to the mini-lesson?

I will thank students for a job well done and then give the following directions:  We will now share our hashtags with our table groups. Please read each hashtag you created.  If you feel comfortable explaining your hashtag, please explain how you came up with it.  After each group member has had the opportunity to share, each group will choose one hashtag that best represents the ideas from the group.  One group member will write the group's hashtags on the whiteboard at the front of the room with a dry erase markers.  You have four minutes. (Space for the hashtags will be clearly labeled and I will hold up the dry erase markers to be used.  I will cold call students that I know already to tell me the directions.)  Go!  

Once hashtags are written on the board, I will facilitate a brief discussion of the hashtags presented. What are the similarities?  What are the differences?  What does this have to do with this class?

I will briefly introduce myself as an educator, which means that I am a scientist and a designer.  I will also explain that we will get to know each other much better over the next few weeks but that I want us to start right away with an amazing and fun skill that not a lot of students in high school have a chance to develop.

What will be my main content talking points? 

I will then name one of the big ideas for class: engineering design thinking and briefly elicit ideas from students about this phrase.  What do we think it means?  What experiences do we have with engineering or design or thinking?  Who thinks that these are strange ideas to be talking about in a science class?  I will then move to provide a brief, explicit explanation of the process of engineering-design thinking.  The process I describe comes from the design school at Stanford.  There are many variations, but I think that this is the most elegant version.  It includes:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test
  • Iterate

I will write (or project an image of each step) and describe briefly connections to the creation of name tags and the observations of the Manhattan Bridge.  As I speak I will narrate the positive I expect to see in class, especially students that are taking notes and actively listening.  (Again, today is a formative assessment day for me, so I will not be as explicitly corrective of student behavior as I will be once I have formally established expectations of student behavior.  I will have paper at each lab station for students to use if they want to take notes.) 

Some directions this brief teach talk might go include: designers had to empathize with residents to build a bridge; students had to define themselves through an image; engineers had to develop a solution for connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn; and so forth.  The results are the name tags on our desks and the familiar bridge we see in the night picture.  Both are elegant solutions to problems.  How can I learn all of my students names?  How can we make it to Brooklyn?

How will I transition from my mini-lesson to the Marshmallow Challenge?

Finally, I will tell students that they are right where they need to be if they have not fully grasped each step.  In fact, I will explicitly state that is natural to be confused, that I would be confused if somebody just talked about these ideas.  I will then name an important mindset idea for the class: bias towards action.  This means that instead of just sitting and thinking and listening, we will be try to do as much as possible.  Through doing design over the next few weeks, many of the steps of the design process will become clearer.

Our first design challenge

22 minutes

Standards: SL.11-12.1, MP1, HS-ETS1-2

TEACHER RESOURCES: The included picture captures what the Marshmallow Challenge might look like in a class.  Additionally, this Ted Talk  provides and engaging overview of this challenge.  The included teacher resource provides a visual of what this activity should look like in your class.

What will students do in this activity?

Students teams will tackle the Marshmallow Challenge.  A team consists of all the students at a lab station.  There will be no more than five students per team.  

Paper bags of required materials will have been made prior to class and stored in bins in the center sink of the lab room.  Each bag contains 20 pieces of spaghetti, one yard of string, scissors, and a marshmallow.  Tape will be adhered to edge of lab desks.

What are the constraints for this activity?

Build the Tallest Freestanding Structure: The winning team is the one that has the tallest structure measured from the table top surface to the top of the marshmallow. That means the structure cannot be suspended from a higher structure, like a chair, ceiling or chandelier.

The Entire Marshmallow Must be on Top:  The entire marshmallow needs to be on top of the structure.  Cutting or eating part of the marshmallow disqualifies a team.

Use as Much or as Little of the Kit Except for the paper bag:  Teams can use as many or as few of the spaghetti sticks, as much or as little of the string or tape.  Teams may not use the bag.

Break up the Spaghetti, String or Tape:  Teams are free to break the spaghetti, cut up the tape and string to create new structures.

The Challenge Lasts 18 minutes: Teams cannot hold on to the structure when the time runs out.

What will the teacher be doing during this activity?

Before beginning I will explain to students that I am going to test a "Photobooth prototype." During the Marshmallow Challenge, I will take my iPad and record a snapshot of each student in the room with the name tag created at the beginning of the period.  This gives me a chance to check in with each student.

I will give students an time update at 12, nine, six, three and one minute.

I answer all questions about possible solution ideas by referring to the constraints.

Also, I may periodically call out the progress of some teams.  Example: Team three seems to have found an excellent strategy! 

What will the teacher assess during this activity?

My classes will experience a number of design challenges over the course of the year; we will explicitly connect these to the empathize-define-ideate-prototype-test-iterate framework.  However, on the first day I want my students to essentially act as free agents, unencumbered by rules or guidelines or the need to evaluate a process they are just learning.  

Circulating around the room throughout the Marshmallow Challenge is an excellent opportunity for me to capture baseline data for my students' social emotional competencies, engineering design thinking, collaborative skills, and general personalities.  



Challenge debrief

10 minutes

Standards: SL.11-12.1

TEACHER RESOURCE:  These are responses that are typical of this debrief activity.

How will we transition from the Marshmallow Challenge to a debrief?

Volunteers from the class will measure each "tower" to identify the winner.  (I will ask for volunteers as I circulate during the challenge.)  We will celebrate the "winning" team through applause.

What will students do as a debrief activity?

I will instruct student group to record answers to the following prompting questions on four pieces of chart paper placed in the corners of the room:

  • Was it more important for your group to win or work together? Why?
  • Were you doing science in this activity? Explain with evidence.
  • What did you learn about yourself as a leader?
  • What role did you naturally take?  Why?

Students will conduct a gallery walk once all questions have been answered and note any comments that they find striking.

How will we share our observations as a class?

I will facilitate a brief discussion of students' noticings.  Do we notice any trends in the data?  Why do we think these trends exist? Did students disagree on any of the questions?  Why do you think students disagreed?  Were any of these questions uncomfortable to answer?  What is the purpose of doing this type of debrief activity?

How will I frame the purpose of the debrief?

I will end by explicitly explaining that engineering design thinking is a collaborative process that depends on each individual's participation and unique dynamics of each group.  It is both a process for solving solutions and an opportunity to learn to work together more effectively.  It is also iterative, meaning that our goal is to develop great solutions, but that great solutions will only emerge once we have developed many solutions that have failed. Example of narrating failure as a positive: Thank-you for failing quickly and publicly!  This gives us an amazing opportunity to learn.

Closing thoughts and next steps

5 minutes

Standards: SL.11-12.1, MP1

TEACHER RESOURCE: This is a rubric that might be used to assess students' engineering design thinking process over the course of the year.

What will students do?

Writing prompt: What are the collaborative habits of engineering design thinking?  Include evidence from your experiences today to explain your thinking in as much detail as possible.

Students are asked to use any extra space on their name tags to write a definition, create an illustration, draw a diagram, or provide an example that addresses the prompt.  A member from each group will share one idea.  All cards will be collected from students as they leave the room.  These cards will be used as baseline data for students' understanding of design thinking.  I will likely be using a modified version of one of the prototype rubrics found here.  One of my goals for the first semester of this course is to develop a student-centered rubric biased towards actionable feedback.

How will class end?

1) Students will be given explicit directions for station clean-up.  

2) I will tell students that they will need a journal of at least 200 pages for this class.  I hold up a few examples (spiral bound, composition notebook).  I positively narrate the student action of writing down this information.

3) I will also students to consider this final thought question: 1) What is your marshmallow for this year?  I will not expand on the question, or clarify.  I want students to grapple with the ambiguity. This question foreshadows the skill of developing solutions to problems that have yet to be identified.

Students will be permitted to leave once their station has been assessed by me as clean.  Students are also encouraged to finally eat the marshmallow..