I have used this as a first-day activity for several years. Students walk in, and sit in groups of three or four assigned for them. The groups are given a large marshmallow, 20 sticks of spaghetti, about a meter of masking tape, the same length of string, and a scissors.

In 18 minutes, each group is to use these materials to build a structure that supports the marshmallow. The highest structure wins. Below are a couple of groups working on their structure.

The marshmallow must remain whole, and the structure may only be connected to the tabletop. That’s it. That’s the whole activity, almost. I project a countdown timer, walk around saying encouraging words, and call out the measurements at the end. We talk about what they did that worked, about how important it is for a group to work together, and how they might do better next time, knowing what they know now. A successful structure looks like this:

Most of these kids have never built any kind of structure, or even thought about what it takes to build a structure. Building a stable structure out of spaghetti is tough in 18 minutes, but the marshmallow adds another dimension. Once you place the marshmallow on top, most of the structures don’t stand, or they lean over until they are barely above the tabletop. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and there are lessons to be learned from it.

I pitch it to the kids as a “model” of what they will be doing in this class:

- they will collaborate in groups, often groups not of their choosing
- the groups will be given unfamiliar problems to solve with familiar tools
- failure is expected along the path to solving unfamiliar problems
- failing publicly is expected during class
- I expect them to learn from failure
- trying is valued, not just success
- success comes when you jump right in, apply what you know, and work together.

I didn’t invent this activity.There exists at least one website, devoted to it. In the TED talk posted on the website, Tom Wujec emphasizes how the including the marshmallow from the start leads to success. This is worth stressing to students in the physics classroom, as well.

Afterwards, we usually do something more traditional, a spring lab, or a pendulum lab. Talking about rules and procedures can wait until later. Getting right to work is more important.