I've heard the term STEM being thrown around quite a lot over the past couple of years. I knew it stood for Science Technology Engineering and Math. And that's about all I knew. So I started researching a bit more and found that it wasn't some big, abstract, scary thing. It's actually a completely doable, fun way for your kids to experiment, collaborate, and problem solve. One of the most popular challenges is the Spaghetti Tower (sometimes called Marshmallow Tower) challenge. In fact, there's a whole website devoted to it, including a really, really interesting TED talk.
All you need for this one are some basic supplies. I put them each in a tin tray just so that I could prepare them ahead of time and have it all ready to go. The tape is the only tricky one. I measured out a yard and stuck it lightly on each table. The kids just ripped or cut off what they wanted as they needed it. You can click here download the document you see below.
It's as simple as that! They can do whatever they want with the supplies they are given, but they can't get any additional supplies. So if they turn all of their tape into an unusable bundle, they have to figure out a solution. The only rule is that the structure must be free standing at the end of the challenge and the marshmallow has to be supported on top. If your kids crave rules and directions like mine, this will be tough. They wanted to ask a million "what if' and "can we" questions. That in itself was a great challenge for them to overcome. They get 18 minutes, which can either feel like an eternity or the blink of an eye depending on how effective the team collaborates together. I used this online stopwatch and projected it on the board so they could always see where they were with time. I was calling out time checks for them, but they were not a fan, so I just let the timer do its thing.
At the end of the challenge, we only had two standing towers. They all tried to basically do the same thing and stick all the strands of spaghetti to the table somehow. Finally one group thought about how to use the string to secure it. I was really rather shocked at their results. I didn't see a lot of risk taking or experimenting. It made me realize just how important these types of challenges and explorations are.
So after we were done, we talked about what went right and what went wrong. We talked about other things they could try. I asked them what supply they thought was most important and which one they would double if they could. Most importantly, I asked them if they wanted to try it again - and the answer was a resounding YES!
So the next day, we tried it again. But this time we had an additional supply - ten mini-marshmallows. The addition of this new supply combined with their previous experience really amped things up!
This simple activity was so amazing to watch unfold. They had to call on so many different general skills and principles and they had to do it together, which is a big focus at our school. I thought I would be impressed by their efforts on the first day, but I really wasn't. I'm so glad I gave them a second chance, because the growth and risk-taking increased dramatically over just one day. Imagine what it will be like next year when my kids get to participate in a challenge like this every week!
I'm determined to make this a focus in my room next year. I've been collecting some ideas on a new Pinterest board if you want to follow along. Just click HERE.