Oct 01

The Marshmallow Challenge

Hello Solar Supporters!

What does a marshmallow and a solar car have in common? Well, they both have unique team building properties, and neither of them can withstand prolonged Lithium Polymer Electrolyte leakage.
Fortunately, the members of the Principia Solar Car team recently capitalized on both of these well known facts. On Monday, September 24th, seasoned Solar Car veterans and new members alike met in the classroom for a team building exercise. The exercise is called “the Marshmallow challenge”. This unique activity calls upon members of a small team to build a structure out of spaghetti, tape, and string. The structure must be able to hold a marshmallow as high above a flat surface as possible, and all prototyping and construction must be completed in less than 18 minutes. The class was split into groups of three, the materials were distributed, and the race was on.

Loud chatter filled the room. Team members jockeyed for creative control. Tape was taped and spaghetti was broken into different lengths and rotated to form shapes. There were triangles, squares, and rhombuses. But with five minutes to go, only one team had a standing structure, which wasn’t very high off of the table. Five minutes quickly became 30 seconds and teams with the taller marshmallow structures began to struggle with keeping their structure from falling over. Only the team with the moderately sized structure was able to support the marshmallow at all.

As it turns out, the “Marshmallow Challenge” is a team building exercise created to facilitate teamwork in business. It was designed by Tom Wujec of Autodesk, a leader in 3D graphics technology, who has done the activity with CEO’s of the Fortune 500 companies, and kindergarteners. As it turns out, kindergarteners are often more successful than business managers, because they spend less time worrying about the final height of the structure. (And in some cases, they spend less time jockeying for control. As Tom Wujec put it: “Kindergarteners don’t try to become CEO of Spaghetti Inc.”)

Overall, the Principia Solar Car team benefited from this activity. The class concluded with a discussion about the importance of flexibility in design. It became clear that different types of prototyping techniques could have a significant impact on the overall success of a project.

Perhaps even more important than the exercise on Monday, a milestone was reached on Saturday while preparing the Solar Car shop to facilitate testing and design of a new vehicle. With gloved hands, Solar Car members checked older batteries for passable voltage output levels to see if they could be utilized in future test runs. Most batteries made the cut, but some did not. In one extreme case, an old battery was emitting a sweet smell, and as it turns out, this is a bad thing. Li-Po batteries (also found in laptops and smart phones) will emit a smell similar to strawberries when they leak. But don’t eat the batteries! There are plenty of marshmallows to go around.

Adam Rolf

Permanent link to this article: http://www.principiasolarcar.com/2012/the-marshmallow-challenge/