It may sound like a grade school science experiment or an arts and crafts project gone wrong, but MBA students at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkley are learning to think critically and frame problems by playing with spaghetti and marshmallows. Poets and Quants explains that Haas’s Marshmallow Challenge may offer an unconventional, yet basic form of experiential learning.
In her “Problem Finding, Problem Solving” course, which was added to Hass’s core curriculum two years ago, Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman challenges her class to work together in competing groups of five to construct the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow (which must be placed on top), all within an 18-minute time limit. Whereas most leadership training emphasizes problem solving, Beckman explains that this exercise purports to teach “problem framing,” something she sees as a fundamental conceptual skill that can equip future business leaders to think systemically, critically assess different frameworks and view problems creatively, before finding ways to solve them.
But the best part comes at the end of the exercise: Beckman tells her class that kindergarteners tend to greatly outperform MBA students at the Marshmallow Challenge, suggesting that a career specialization and drive for success may sometimes actually work against opportunities for experimentation and innovation.