Collaboration in the Classroom – Marshmallow Towers
Earlier in the year, I took my students on a photo walk through Omaha’s downtown area. There, the students were to look for simple shapes in complex structures. The idea was to get them to look at things a little creatively and to notice little details that they might otherwise have missed.
Because I had a class of 22 students, but only access to 10 iPads, I randomly assigned the kids into groups of 2 or 3 for this lesson. To introduce this activity, I loaded each of the iPads with the Fotopedia Paris app. Looking at pictures of the Eiffel Tower, I reminded students of our experiences on the photo walk and encouraged them to look at the details of the Eiffel Tower. Here are a few samples of their observations:
“There are little triangles all over the place.”
“The bottom is really wide and the top is really narrow.”
“The whole tower kind of looks like a really big triangle.”
“The bottom of the tower is curvy.”
After looking at the tower, I showed my students some pictures of bridges. We compared and contrasted the bridges with the Eiffel Tower, and the students were able to see that many of the same shapes they saw in the tower were also present in the bridges. I encouraged the children to think a little bit about why they might see a lot of triangles in the tower. Through our discussion, I guided them to see that triangles are good, stable shapes that help structures maintain strength and stability.
Part One – Construction Zone
Following our class discussion, students once again fired up the iPads and opened up an app called Construction Zone Lite. This free app has 5 levels of increasing difficulty where players need to build a tower of a target height using a limited amount of materials. The interface is very simple to use, and after a little discussion about what all the tools do, I encouraged the kids to think about our discussion about structures and let them play the game. In their groups, my students were able to construct stable towers that met the target height. This was a great way for them to experiment a little bit with different strategies for building tall towers. after about 20 minutes of time with the app, I had each group pair up with another group do discuss their successes and difficulties in building towers in the game.
Part Two – Marshmallow Towers
The next day, I opened the lesson by putting students into their groups again to build towers in Construction Zone. The groups were quicker and more successful at building their towers the second time around, and we were able to have a quick high score competition. After the warm-up activity, we once again discussed common traits in the construction of the different structures we had looked at the previous day.
Remaining in their same groups, the students came up with names for their “engineering firms”. Each group has been contracted to design a tower that will stand on its own. Each firm was given the following “budget”:
- One 16 oz. bag of mini marshmallows
- One 16 oz. bag of jumbo marshmallows
- One box of 250 toothpicks
- A cardboard base 12″ by 12″
The object of the activity was to build the tallest tower they could build using the provided materials efficiently. The students were told that they would be evaluated based on the height of the tower, its design, and the amount of materials left over. This served a dual purpose – 1) it’s real life, and 2) they would be discouraged from eating too many marshmallows ;-).
Each group was assigned a work area, and away they went. Here are some pictures of the construction process.
As you can see, some groups got the idea more than others. We spent a total of an hour and a half over two days working on the project. In the end, each group was able to construct a tower that stood on its own for the entire weekend. We wrapped up the activity with a short, positive critique of the structures, pointing out things that groups did well as well as things that could have gone better.