Authentic Learning Through Marshmallows

Leaning TowerI’ve written previously about incorporating project-based learning into my courses, and I’m pushing ahead with restructuring at least one of my spring courses accordingly. One of the problems I’m encountering is how to make the process “authentic” — how to make projects reflect real-world processes and outcomes. Even though a growing proportion of university undergraduates in the USA are older and have careers, my classrooms are still mostly full-time, 18 to 22 year old students who lack experience in the workplace. While certain programs of study require field or clinical placements, in contrast to Olin University there is no systemic curricular emphasis on external partnerships where students are engaged in projects with actual clients.

One of the fundamental lessons of “authentic learning” that is difficult to present adequately in a classroom environment is the trade-offs that are inherent in any real-world decision-making process. The perfect solution rarely exists. Project managers know that customers want things fast, good, and cheap. They also know that it’s only possible to get two of the three. If you want fast and good, you aren’t going to get cheap. And if you want cheap and fast, it’s not going to be good.

I finally found a hands-on exercise that efficiently demonstrates this principle: the marshmallow challenge. The object of the marshmallow challenge is to collaborate with others to quickly design and build the tallest tower out of a limited supply of dry spaghetti, tape, string, and a marshmallow. The TED video I’ve linked to can complement the debriefing process, and this Edutopia column by Suzie Boss and the Buck Institute for Education goes into greater detail about how to best execute these kinds of collaborative activities for project-based learning.