Ever hear of the “Marshmallow Challenge?” Small teams of individuals are given the following assignment: use twenty sticks of uncooked spaghetti, one yard of masking tape, and one yard of string to construct the tallest possible free-standing structure that supports the weight of a marshmallow. Most people assume that since a marshmallow doesn’t weigh much, it shouldn’t significantly affect the support structure. Of course, even a small mass can produce structural failure when placed atop a long unsupported column.
So what profession does best at this task? According to Tom Wujec, a Fellow at software company Autodesk, the tallest structures are built by engineers and architects. They consistently outperform similar teams of lawyers, business school students, or corporate managers. This is not an unanticipated result, as we expect our engineers to know something about static structures. However, it is rather surprising to learn that youngsters, even kindergarten students, do far better than most adults—kids are simply not afraid to repeatedly fail as they search for an approach that works. (You may discover more about this learning exercise at MarshmallowChallenge.com).
Two insights come from this anecdotal report of group behavior. First, that engineers have been trained to think in a manner that is distinctly different from those in other professions. Second, that repeated rounds of prototyping and evaluation may be an effective means for dealing with the messy, unstructured, uncertain problems that engineers frequently encounter.