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Marshmallow Challenge

How high can you build a marshmallow tower?

Cycle Type

  Contextualized Math

This is the Contextualized Math cycle type. Cycle types used to organize cycles by categories.

Maker Mindset

During maker projects, participating productively as part of a group generally leads to better and more robust work. Pooling and building on each other’s ideas creates better maker designs and products. Likewise, solving mathematics problems or building a mathematical model is a creative process that benefits from collaboratively generating and/or vetting ideas and working together.

Guessing is low risk and creates curiosity. We know guesses are usually wrong, so students feel safe floating new ideas. Predicting is an explicit part of the process, and they are supposed to guess, not demonstrate knowledge. Coming up with a guess makes students think about parameters for reasonable answers and aspects/variables of the situation. This habit of mind applies equally to maker and mathematics situations.

Makers are curious. They notice how things work and wonder “what will happen if …”. The same outlook opens new doors into mathematics. Noticing the structure of mathematical objects and wondering what will happen if you change terms or parameters opens avenues into finding solutions or building a mathematical model.

Maker tasks encourage trying out design ideas early to see if they are feasible. If they work, they are revised and improved upon. If they don’t, they are replaced by new ideas quickly without losing too much time pursuing dead-ends. This habit of mind also applies to mathematics. While solving math problems, students should test their ideas early. Will an idea lead to answers that is reasonable rather than too big or too small? If we are writing a general expression or equation, does it work for small cases? Can we tell without solving if a solution will be positive or negative?

CC Standards


You can find descriptions of all common core math standards at Common Core Math Standards

Please let Brent ( know when you are planning to do this challenge in your class. We would like to come and observe, if possible.

Pre-lesson free play (15 min): Form teams of 3. Give each team of 3 some supplies: 5 sticks of spaghetti, a foot or so of masking tape, and a foot or two of string.

Teams of 3: mixed gender teams

Student roles may include: chief architect, testing coordinator, materials master, challenge captain, rapid reporter, time keeper...

Here are some supplies. Play with these with your team and see what you can make with them in the next 10 minutes.


Building STUDENT Maker Mindset & Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP)

“The lesson in the marshmallow tower challenge is that we need to test our designs early and often. That’s the mechanism that leads to effective innovation and design.”

In this challenge, students will...

  • Collaborate
  • Prototype-revise
  • Document process
  • Document learning: What was hard? Where did I get stuck? How did I get unstuck?

SMP 1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them

SMP 3: Construct viable argument and critique the reasoning of others

SMP 6: Attend to precision 

SMP 7: Look for and make use of structure

Reinforcing TEACHER Maker Mindset & Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP) purpose:

Teachers will stay out of the way of students’ rapid design work, trusting they will make progress and stay engaged in the task.  Do not intervene during the 18 minute period. At any time, students are free to get up scout other teams (observe or ask questions of others).  

To do so, it is suggested the teacher documents (photographing) students during the creation of the towers to chronicle diversity of design, and document students’ affective response throughout. You may also want to take anecdotal records.  

You should specifically be on the lookout for evidence of the mathematical purpose for your grade level, as well as other grade levels’ mathematics content -- see below.

Only if a team is truly stuck, you might ask: what is working well/not here?  Would it help to go see what other teams are doing? 

The Mathematical Purpose

This challenge will be followed by lessons which focus on identifying and classifying 2-dimensional shapes, and categorizing them based on properties including the number and length of their sides, the number and measure of their angles, and the presence of perpendicular or parallel sides. After categorizing, the task will be to write definitions of each category so that others could decide whether new shapes belong in the category.

Some Mathematical Content that is Connected to this Challenge

Some of the Mathematics Available in the Marshmallow Challenge at various grade levels:  

(➡ indicates math that will be targeted in the follow up math lesson for your grade level).

K: MD 1,2,3, (measure and compare attributes) G1, 5 (describe shapes, model shapes from components)

K:  CC 4 & 5 (understand the connection of numbers to quantities; count to answer “how many”)

1: M 4 (organize, represent, interpret data) G2 (compose/decompose 2-d shapes or 3-d shapes)

 2: OA1 (addition and subtraction within 100 word problems) MD1-4 (measure, compare, estimate) 5 (word problems) 9, 10 (generate and draw graphs of measurement data) G1

3: MD4 (generate measurement data using halves and fourth, line plot) G1 (categorize shapes, e.g. quadrilaterals)

➡ 4: MD4 (line plot using fractions of units ½, ¼, ⅛), G1,2 (identify properties of lines and angles, classify figures based on parallel, perpendicular lines, identify right triangles)

➡ 5: MD 1 (convert among different sized standard measurement units) 2 (line plot with fractions of units, solve word problems); G3,4 (Classify two-dimensional figures in a hierarchy based on their properties)

6: EE5-8 (reason about and solve one-variable equations and inequalities) SP1-3 (develop understanding of statistical variability) 4,5 (summarize and describe distributions)

7: EE 3,4 (solve real-world and math problems using numerical and algebraic expressions and equations - e.g. coming up with max estimates) G 1,2, (scale drawings, given conditions, determine uniqueness (triangle congruence conditions)) - focus on geometry

8: Modeling emphasize with previously learned content standards

Also, using tools including using measuring tools (measuring tape, string). 

Connections to NGSS

Define simple problem

  • 3-5ETS1-1

Optimize design solution

  • 3-5ETS1.C

Make observations

PS1 Matter and its Interactions 1-3

Empirical evidence

  • 4-PS4-1 Recognizing patterns

Connections to CSS-ELA/ELD

Comprehension and Collaboration: 


projecting countdown timer (e.g., google timer)n/a
scissors 1 per team
measuring tape in cm
teacher notes about measuring tapes: 
a) sewing tapes work well for this task.
b) be mindful of where the zero is (i.e., where students begin measuring)
1 per team
clipboard1 per team
Consumable (pre-sorted for each team prior to the challenge)
20 sticks of spaghetti
teacher notes: use spaghetti pasta, not spaghettini (too flimsy) or fettucini (too thick)
1 yard of masking tape
1 yard of string
1 large marshmallow (~1 inch)
teacher notes: any brand of standard-sized marshmallows work fine (avoid mini or jumbo size)
1 lab sheet per team (on clipboard; at end of this lesson plan)
10 sticky notes per team (on clipboard behind lab sheet)
9" x 12" manila envelope
teacher notes: works well for distributing materials (except tape, which is best distributed in an unrolled length, stuck to the side of the workspace)



Evidence that guides on-going student feedback and supports instructional planning (especially instances for math follow up lessons) 

  • Take pictures/anecdotal records of team interactions (class climate) 
  • Take pictures of students’ towers (design) 
  • Take pictures/anecdotal records of SMPs in action (agency/authority/identity) 
  • Listen to student discussions, take down quotes. 

Teacher Reflection: 

  • Add an entry to your Maker Portfolio that includes at least two of your favorite photos of the Marshmallow Challenge tower/process (and two captions!) and a reflection on the activity. Feel free to address any of these prompts if you so desire: 
    • What was the hardest part of the challenge for students? 
    • What was the hardest part of the project for you as the teacher? 
    • What worked well for the students? 
    • What surprised you about the challenge? 
    • What would you do differently next time?
    •  What did students learn? 
    • How, if at all, does the Marshmallow Challenge support, influence, and/or revise your understanding of agency, authority, and identity?

 Credits and Sources: 

Reference: Marshmallow Challenge