The New Chapter: A Tale of Two Towers

Paige_Fiet_300.jpgHave you ever played the game where you and your team try to build the tallest tower out of marshmallows and dry spaghetti (and sometimes tape) within a time limit? If you’ve played this fun game before, you know it’s meant to test problem-solving skills and build teamwork.

But what if I told you that you’ve been playing this game all wrong?

I assume that, if you played this game today, your team would start by brainstorming how to build the best base, as well as the strongest and tallest tower, out of the available materials. Your team would likely spend 50% to 70% of the time limit on brainstorming and the last 30% to 50% building your tower. In contrast, a group of kids given the same challenge will start building their tower right away; when their tower falls, they will start over with a new design. A group of kids will repeatedly test varying prototypes until they achieve the tallest design. They see what most adults don’t when the test begins: There is no right answer.

Why do kids tend to succeed at this game better than adults with more life experience? I think it’s because we don’t work that problem-solving “muscle;” anymore. It is in a child’s nature, on the other hand, to constantly assess and test boundaries, whether they are learning to walk and talk, or are making friends at school. Adults, especially new college graduates, are conditioned through years of schooling that there is typically one “right” answer to a given question. What is 8 + 8? The answer will always be 16. What is the powerhouse of the cell? It’s the mitochondria, of course. After 12 years of schooling (or more), rote learning effectively forces our problem-solving into hibernation deep in our brains.

I always hear from new engineering graduates that the workforce is not what they expected it to be; graduates often express how unprepared they felt at their first internship. Is it because the engineering skills they learned in school failed them, or is it because they fail to see those skills as one of many tools in their skills toolbox? I’ll admit that my first internships—and my first few months at my first full-time job—stretched my problem-solving skills as well. Instead of a calculus problem with one right answer that I could solve in 20 minutes, I was faced with problems that did not have a solution manual. I had to think about these problems for days or even weeks to come up with a solution; even then, that sense of immediate success, so familiar to me from my experiences in academia, was missing. I had to learn that my education was just another tool in a larger toolbox of problem-solving skills—ones that I needed to learn about and develop over time.

paige_fig1.jpgIf a college education is a single “tool,” what other tools exist? DOEs, the five whys technique, the problem-definition process, and design sprints are just some of the tools I had to add to my repertoire. Just like a hammer cannot screw in a screw, statistics will not solve every workplace problem. I had to go beyond my education and the quick problem-solving skills I’d relied on in calculus and basic chemistry. Naturally, this learning process was full of growing pains. Each time I tried a new skill, I was met with failure. Again and again. It was frustrating. I had spent the past 15 years solving problems with one right answer. I never really had to learn how to problem-solve like an engineer. Unfortunately, I believe many other students are in the same boat—they haven’t had to flex those mental muscles or solve problems that last beyond a class period.

Where do those students go from here? I would argue that these skills can be built by engaging in extra-curriculars or joining clubs. My college had a “Concrete Canoe” club, in which students were tasked with building a canoe out of concrete that could both float in water and hold two people in a paddling race. Other clubs had students use 3D printers to create chess boards and matching pieces. These students had to visualize how each piece would be created in a CAM program, and they had to verify that all the parts would fit together properly. Personally, I took pottery classes and learned basic woodworking. Such hobbies allow us to grow our skills and thought processes outside of the classroom; they aid in spatial visualization and to see how components move together to create a whole. These activities are no more important than a college education; rather, they expand on skills students have learned in class and help diversify our thinking processes.

Schools can and should offer these types of activities but, for now, it is up to students to seek out these opportunities so that they can expand their problem-solving skills. It is essential for engineers to be able to think outside of the box—to test prototype after prototype until a solution is found. Adults playing the marshmallow game would do well to extend their approach to problem-solving beyond the “right answer” way of thinking. Through practice and time, we can better prepare ourselves for the challenges that lie ahead in both our industry and our personal lives.


“Build a tower, build a team,” by Tom Wujec at TED2010,, Feb. 2010.

This column originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of PCB007 Magazine.



The New Chapter: A Tale of Two Towers


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