The marshmallow tower challenge is a fun project for teaching kids construction and engineering basics and for teaching people of any age the power of teamwork. The idea is for a small group of people to build a structure with a very limited set of supplies. Your group will aim for a particular goal such as the tallest tower, the strongest tower or the most elaborate construction. Your supplies may be no more than marshmallows and spaghetti strands, or they could include a few additional materials like tape or string. The project may be minimalistic or may offer your team an unlimited supply of marshmallows to work with. However the challenge is set up, though, you want your marshmallow structure to be rugged, strong and steady.
Make a Nice, Wide Base
Think of the Eiffel Tower. It sits on the ground on a wide, firm base and tapers beautifully to its full height of more than 1,000 feet. The wide base provides solid support and the tapering prevents the tower from being top-heavy, which could cause it to easily tip over. Incorporate those same principles in your marshmallow tower. Build a wide base and narrow it down as it grows taller.
Triangles, Triangles, Triangles
Take a look at a modern bridge, cell phone tower or, for that matter, the Eiffel Tower. They're built out of triangles. A triangle is an inherently rigid structure, unlike a rectangle, which is easily deformed. Your triangles don't need to be uniform in size, but use the triangle as your basic structural unit as you're building in order to maximize the strength of your tower.
Double-up Your Supports
Are you working with an unlimited spaghetti supply? Then use multiple pieces to secure your marshmallows. The additional strands will add strength and rigidity without adding too much extra weight. Your tower will stand straight and tall (assuming that's what you want it to do) and will be resistant to flexing or to the effects of local vibrations and breezes that can collapse a lesser structure.
Think Outside the Marshmallow
Work within the rules of your challenge, but don't restrict yourself with unnecessary limits. Anything in the rules about melting a marshmallow or two? If not, perhaps that could serve as a sort of glue to help secure the base of your tower. Need a little extra height or artistic flair? Accessorize your tower by adding some spaghetti strands to your top marshmallow. If the tower seems a bit unsteady because there's too much weight on top, perhaps half a marshmallow will do instead of the whole one you had up there originally. The possible variations in design are almost unlimited.
About the Author
David Sarokin is an ecologist and noted environmentalist with more than 30 years experience in environmental policy. He created the nation's Right-to-Know program for chemical pollutants, and is the author of Missed Information (MIT Press, 2016), detailing how our social systems like health care, finance and government can be improved with better quality information.