For the first assignment in our online Learning Creative Learning course we were tasked with creating a structure that could support a single marshmallow as high as possible. Our constraints included both a limited palette of materials (20 spaghetti sticks, one yard of masking tape, and one yard of string) as well as a time limit of only eighteen minutes for building. We divided up into two teams of three and started to work furiously on the challenge.
There were a couple of interesting innovations in the course of our exploration. Karen, TJ, and Raisa quickly abandoned a plan to make a tent-like structures with bent strands of spaghetti and concentrated on forming triangles for strength. Lianna, Ryoko, and I tried to go really tall without testing the weight of the marshmallow and learned that it helped to expand the base of the tower.
Of course once we put the marshmallow on top of our nearly completed tower, the spaghetti bowed under it’s weight. We had a few minutes left in the challenge so we scrambled to figure out a plan for how to keep the structure stable. We saw the unused length of string and quickly created a tensioned connection between the top of the structure and the base. It ended up working and as the clock ran down we put up our hands and had a precariously balanced tower.
Afterwards we had a really interesting conversation about both how it felt to participate as a learner and how the activity design relates to our work in the Tinkering Studio. We all responded to the pressure of the time limit and the competition. We also noticed interesting social dynamics both within the teams and between them as ideas transferred across groups. All of us agreed that there was an emotional quality to the experience that included frustration, excitement, and joy at different stages of the process.
But we had to delve a little deeper when discussing whether the activity was an “experience worth having” and/or whether it would be something we would be interested in trying in the tinkering studio. One aspect of activity design that we talk a lot about when developing activities or tweaking old ones is the balance between freedom and constraints. We mostly agreed that the limitations in the marshmallow challenge were a little too extreme and might have stifled some creativity. For example, Raisa’s idea to build a curved structure made of arcs was abandoned because of the scarcity of time and materials, but that might have proved to be a fruitful exploration. The entire activity took the form of a traditional ‘design challenge’ where success was defined both by external factors (the quantitative height of the tower) and in opposition to the other groups instead of through collaboration.
In the Tinkering Studio we try to come up with experiences where participants not only develop their own strategies but also create their own goals. In our preferred type of activity, the learner should get feedback from materials and phenomenon but ultimately gets to decide what success looks like and can challenge framework and choose the direction of the exploration as they go. Something about the external validation of the experience through the measurement at the end felt somewhat uncomfortable to us. In this challenge, people worked in a team, explored materials with their hands, and came up with creative solutions to problems but it still didn’t feel fully like an experience we would host in the tinkering studio because it felt lacking in a sense of collaboration, improvisation, and facilitation. Its pretty tricky to define the differences between this and one of our core activity like marble machines, but its a crucial distinctions for our group to make. All in all, this activity was a nice starting point for the learning creative learning class and sparked some really interesting conversations that we’ll be continuing to grapple with as we go along.