Queen Bee Tower Build: an alternative to The Marshmallow Challenge

7 Dec

The secret to success in The Marshmallow Challenge is testing ideas early and often. Teams that fail forward quickly and iterate ideas do better than those that stick to one strategy (usually pushed forward by the most dominant personality in the group). I love the challenge and have been on the hunt for more activities like it. The Queen Bee Tower Build is my favorite alternative I have used so far.

I originally found this idea in Innovation Challenges published by St. Louis University’s Parks College of Engineering, Aviation, and Technology, but I have updated the original activity to better suit my needs, so my version goes beyond the one I found. Hey, I practice what I preach: iterative thinking.

This opening activity in Design for Change becomes a touchstone throughout the year. The playful, cooperative nature of the experience makes the learning sticky, and we make connections back to the activity throughout the course. Read on for a detailed explanation of how I set up and run the activity.

Warning: gathering the materials is time consuming. Also, this list is not prescriptive. You should adapt with what you have on hand. I scavenged most of these materials, and I definitely did not buy any of the plastic materials used. I have been working really hard to get rid of single-use plastics on our campus. I’m just reusing plastic before down-cycling it.  

List of materials (again, you should adjust this list in any way that suits you):

  • 1 large yogurt tub
  • 2 long straws
  • 1 binder clip
  • 12 circular cards (playing card thickness)
  • 6 plastic cups
  • 14 green paper cups
  • 6 yellow paper cups
  • 1 red paper cup
  • 16 mini paper cups
  • 4 magnets
  • 16 paper straws
  • 1 wooden cylinder
  • 2 wooden blocks
  • 6 wooden spoons
  • 5 coffee lids
  • 14 tongue depressors (popsicle sticks)
  • 2 large tongue depressors

The directions for the activity are fairly simple. We play three to four rounds of the tower build game in one 50-minute period. I adjust the rules as we progress. Groups of three to four participants work best. Here are the basic rules with some helpful hints sprinkled in.

First Round Rules & Tips:

  • The youngest member of the team is the Queen Bee. The Queen can see and talk but cannot touch any materials at any time.
  • The workers are blindfolded and cannot talk. They must do their best to follow the instructions of the Queen without responding verbally.
  • Facilitator should say something like: “Using only the materials given, build the highest tower possible in five minutes.
  • Facilitator who doesn’t want to go hunting for more materials after each class should also say: “PLEASE do NOT alter the materials in any way (no tearing, punching holes, etc.)”

I like to have the workers blindfolded before the contents of the bag are revealed. If items are spilled on the floor I ask the Queen Bee to direct a worker to retrieve it, but if I see a group is floundering, I come over and help get everything on the table.

I don’t really offer any help in the first round. After the five minutes have passed, I ask everyone to remove the blindfolds and discuss strategies for improvement while I measure the towers. I encourage them to speak in low voices and to try to hide their ideas from other teams. By encouraging them to hide ideas from other teams, I’m setting up a point about cooperation that I will make later in the class .

Next, I give teams a few minutes to assess their strategies. They can also change roles in their team, if they choose (i.e. pick a new queen). I encourage them to think strategically. Which ideas are working? Which ideas should be abandoned? Can they offer any kind feedback to individuals to improve the team’s performance?

When discussing these strategies, I encourage them to pick up the materials and play with them. Holding the materials and building 3D models of their ideas is a very important step toward innovative use of materials. They should test their ideas, trying to improve them.

Second Round Rules & Tips:

  • Same as the first round
  • After five minutes, we measure the towers and declare a round two winner.
  • In round two, I start to give helpful hints to teams, especially ones that are struggling.
  • Almost all the towers are taller in the second round.

The second round works like the first. I resist the urge to help any team. If a queen is particularly struggling, I might make suggestions, but for the most part I let the second round run like the first. The teams should improve, however, as they have had a chance to strategize, assess tactics, and make role changes (if necessary).

Third Round Rules & Tips:

  • If the Queen Bee structure is abandoned, all team members can see, talk, and touch materials.
  • Teams are still trying to build the tallest tower in five minutes.
  • Encourage sharing breakthroughs with the entire class. Let’s build on our best ideas!
  • Be sure to emphasize the key innovations that you see and praise innovative use of materials.

Before the third round, I change the rules fundamentally. I tell the students that I have purposefully put them in competition with one another, but now I want to see what happens when we shift from a competitive mindset to a cooperative one.

This shift is the most important one of the day. I really sell the transformative power of cooperation and building on best ideas.

Before round three begins, I ask each team to explain their best idea to the group. They have to show everyone else the idea and explain why they think it works. 

If a team is struggling I might coax their idea into a better one, but I try to be hands off and let the students explain their own thinking in their own words.

Some teams figure out that starting on the floor and not the table makes the tower more stable and easier to build for height. Others might notice that placing a card between the cups makes the stack more stable. A few teams always come up with something cool that I have never seen before. I make a big deal out of all ideas, and I might share one or two ideas of my own.

After we have shared our best ideas, I let the room vote on the third round. Should we keep the blindfolds or let all team members use all senses? Do we abandon the Queen Bee structure and adopt a flat hierarchy? Half the time students vote to keep the Queen Bee and blindfold structure, and half the time they vote to abandon it. I let the majority decide.

Fourth Round Rules:

  • If there is time we do a fourth build.
  • Another option I have tried in the fourth round is to switch the objective. Instead of the tallest tower, I ask them to build the most beautiful tower.
  • I sometimes switch what they build at this point. Instead of a tower, I might ask them to build “something cool” for a child in their life. The team must pick an actual child that at least one of them knows and, using the same materials, build something the child will enjoy. They take a picture of the end products to share with the child. I have also used this option as a day two activity.

After the final build, I give out prizes to the team that set the record for the tallest build. This record height can be set in any round. I have a Bag-o-Mystery that I fill with random and goofy prizes like unicorn erasers, Harry Potter pins, and random things I don’t want to recycle just yet. A shocking number of teenagers still really dig a cool sticker, too. I have an appropriately tacky collection.

Debrief Class:

In the next class, I usually begin with a debrief of the tower build game. I ask, How is the Queen Bee Tower Build like GOOD DESIGN? The students always come up with great ideas on their own, and I usually bring up the following points:

One big advantage of the Queen Bee Tower Build over the Marshmallow Challenge is that we can reuse the materials over and over again. We can complete multiple rounds more quickly, so more people practice iterative thinking more rapidly. I have also found that many of my students come to me with a prior knowledge of The Marshmallow Challenge. I have yet to have any students know about the Queen Bee Tower Build. It’s novel to them, and I hope it is an idea that is useful to you.

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