January 26, 2012

Putting the E in STEM with the Spaghetti Tower Challenge

STEM is all the rage these days. Science, Technology, and Math are taking center stage (at last). But did you know that there's an E in STEM? That's right! The E stands for Engineering. This week my students completed The Spaghetti Tower Challenge, one of my favorite engineering tasks. It's fun and chock-full of 21st Century Skills.

The premise of The Spaghetti Tower Challenge is simple and commonplace:
How tall can you make a tower of only spaghetti, marshmallows, and gumdrops?

I've been doing this task with my students for 6+ years and have worked hard to make it less of a playing-with-food activity and more of a really-rewarding-challenge activity.

8 Ways to Strengthen Collaborative Engineering
1. Using finite resources: I provide each group with only 20 of each item (ex. 20 gumdrops). Having a limited number of resources helps the students focus on the task and think about the strengths and weaknesses of each material. It also gives more value to the planning process.
2. Planning before handling the materials: My students have 5 minutes to plan. During this time they may talk, write, and draw, but they cannot touch any of the materials. They must visualize and share with one another. Many groups choose to sketch a design for their tower.
3. Building in total silence: That's right! Students may not talk or write during their building time. They may use gestures and lip-reading. This element helps the students really focus on the task and on their collaboration. Don't believe me? Try it with your students. Collaborative silence is also just plain fun!
The winning tower in it's final stages.
4. Learning from other groups: This is where the learning goes up a notch. After students have 15 minutes of building time they rotate with their group to view (not touch!) the other groups' towers. The students have 1 minute to analyze each tower and talk about what techniques they might use on their own projects.
5. Reflection = Critical Thinking: Engineering is all about testing theories and reflecting on things that are working or not working. Now that the students have had experience building and they've gotten ideas from others, it's time to make a new plan. Students get 3 minutes to plan what changes they will make to their tower.
6. Making Tough Choices: At this point I give each group 20 more resources.  However, they must decide the type they want. For instance, your group may want 10 gumdrops and 10 marshmallows OR 15 spaghetti pieces and 5 gumdrops OR 20 marshmallows. Students must think about the value of each resource and how it fits into their new plan.
7. Re-building: Students use 10-15 more minutes of silent building to implement their new plan
8. Debriefing: This aspect of the task is the most important, but often overlooked. Students gather around the winning tower to discuss what makes it work. This discussion often includes ideas about support, foundation, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each resource. If there's time we also debrief other towers in the class.

Collaborative engineering tasks like this activate new ways of thinking. Students examine how and why things work. They generate, test, and evaluate ideas. They work together to solve problems. The Spaghetti Tower Challenge is a great beginner engineering task. Happy Building!

~ Amanda

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