University of Calgary

Marshmallow challenge

December 13, 2010

Marshmallow challenge

By Leanne Yohemas

Photo credit: Riley BrandtPhoto credit: Riley BrandtThe assignment: take this brown bag which is filled with one marshmallow, 20 sticks of spaghetti, one metre of tape and one metre of string. Now, build the biggest free-standing structure in 18 minutes. The rule: the marshmallow must be on top.

Is it a geophysics course or teaching kindergarten basics 101? The first is the correct answer. UToday caught up with Adam Pidlisecky, assistant professor in the geosciences department, to find out why he has taken a different approach to teaching.

Q. How difficult was this exercise?
A. First, it was tough for them to get their heads around that this is what we were doing in class. When they recovered and got to the task, about four out of the nine groups had free-standing structures, the tallest being 69 centimetres. The team with the tallest, most stable structure worked quickly so as to allow time for a rebuild if the structure was to collapse.

Q. What will building with spaghetti and a marshmallow teach students?
A. It’s a team-building exercise with a very practical purpose. There are many preconceived notions on how things work that are often stumbling blocks to innovation. This exercise gives students a chance to try many different ways to solve a problem and also work through it as a team, which is what they will do once they graduate.

Q. How does this exercise relate to the course Geophysics 565 - Environmental Geophysics?
A. The goal of the course is to teach the students how to move from a big picture scientific question to a clear, focused and testable question. They are given topics such as monitoring contaminant transport from the Hanford Site into the Columbia River, WA or determining the effect of the 2004 Tsunami on Sri Lankan groundwater resources. Students must come up with a process for identifying the low-hanging fruit; the idea, that will make the biggest impact on solving the ‘big-picture problem.’

Q. Where did you get the idea?
A. I’m always interested in looking at new ways to engage students in their work as well as ways to make what they study relevant to real life. I’m interested in what’s known as design theory—innovation from a human-centred process—a methodology that helps one to identify and focus on the key aspects of a problem, this, in turn lays the foundation for novel solutions to challenging problems. It has a rich history of being used to tackle creative, business and scientific problems. Companies all over the world who are designing products and brands or even exploring where technology is going in the future use design theory.

While researching innovative team building ideas, I came across this video by Tom Wujec, a Fellow at Autodesk, the makers of design software for engineers, filmmakers, designers. It gave me the idea to try the marshmallow challenge in class. This video of a talk by IDEO CEO Timothy Brown provides a good background on design theory.

Q. Who would win: kindergarten student or university students? A. The kindergarteners! Children are natural prototypers—they still have unbridled creativity and curiosity. They are comfortable making mistakes, learning and moving on. This is something we need to encourage our students to rediscover.

The University of Calgary offers many outstanding opportunities for active and collaborative learning. If you have a story about creative and engaging teaching, please submit it to

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