Structures out of spaghettis and marshmallows

The key to success is never to give up!

Yesterday I gave a science workshop to my younger group of kids: 6 – 9 year olds. I am typically a high school teacher, but this school year I am trying a different thing: workshops for homeschooled kids. And yesterday was one of those workshops.

I have a really great group of 6 to 9 year olds. At first it was challenging to understand really how small these kids are, how little they know about the world, how easy it is to surprise them with the simplest science experiment. I taught kids, but never this young before. I had to revamp my whole way of thinking about the class, about the kids, about science!

Yesterday was no exception.

I decided to teach them about structures, how the rectangle is very useful, but not a very stable structure. How the triangle is so much better, so much stronger, and how we can make a rectangle into a stable structure by creating a support, transforming it into triangles. Easy concept, lots of applications, great!

In order to demonstrate this concept further, I thought we would build some 3-D structures out of Spaghetti and Marshmallows. This was supposed to be awesome fun, and I thought it would help the kids really understand this concept. I have never tried this before, but “how hard could it be” I thought.

Well, let me tell you: it was hard! The younger kids especially had a hard time with their dexterity, and needed a lot of help from me. One child didn’t quite get that we were building in three dimensions. Another just asked me to help him all the time (do it for him), and then when I left to help other kids, he accidently broke his structure. After fooling around a bit, he found a cool way of attaching the marshmallows to the spaghetti, and really wanted to show me. Another child got really really frustrated and after building an awesome structure, destroyed it and almost started crying. However, I convinced him to start again, with shorter pieces of spaghetti. This worked well, unfortunately, there was not enough time for him to complete his tower – this was another source of his frustration.

The older kids wanted to build large structures, but didn’t plan ahead. Initially they thought that their structures were the best, and boasted that for everybody to hear. After adding more complexity to their towers, some of the structures broke. These kids however seemed to learn from their mistakes, and didn’t give up quite as easily. They just continued building even without my insistence.

I don’t know if I would do this activity with such young students again. Probably 9 year olds are the youngest I would go for the “Spaghetti and Marshmallow Tower” project. For younger kids, I would definitely change it up a bit. Make them first follow a step by step procedure… following my lead. Then, after the initial practice, I might let them go free and try to build something on their own. Also, an hour was just not enough. This is at least a two hour project. Time restrictions just added to the frustration.

On a positive note, today I got an email from the young frustrated child’s mother. She sent me pictures of her son’s spaghetti and marshmallow “stable structures”. Supposedly, the child woke up really early today and decided to try again. The frustrated kid overcame his frustration and tackled the project again: He build some awesome structures. He didn’t give up, just had a bit of a temporary melt down. What an inspiration to all of us. Just try and try again! Never give up! Overcome your emotions, and then try again – until you succeed.