Success Skill Series: Problem Solving

When we talk about problem-solving skills in PCCAPS, we are referring to the ability to handle difficult or unexpected situations. Problem solving enables us to assess what stands in our way and identify solutions. This skill is highly valued by employers, but is also useful in daily life, academic endeavors, and in relationship building. Read further to see how PCCAPS students recently practiced problem solving.


Marshmallow Spaghetti Tower


The Marshmallow Spaghetti Tower challenge in PCCAPS is a modified version of an activity for beginners in engineering to practice prototyping and testing. The goal of the challenge is to build the tallest, freestanding tower. The marshmallow must be at the very top. Supplies for each team include 20 sticks of uncooked spaghetti, one (1) yard of masking tape, one (1) yard of string, and one (1) giant marshmallow.


With only 18 minutes to build, students quickly discovered several problems. To win, they must solve all of them.


1. The spaghetti is flimsy and fragile.

2. The weight of the marshmallow bends a single stick of spaghetti.

3. The team has limited time to figure out a plan.

4. All team members have competing ideas on the base design.

5. Most teams are missing a member with engineering expertise.



In the competitive, 18-minute fray, creative ideas are declared, bits of spaghetti go flying, team spies gather intel from neighbors, and cries of triumph are soon followed by groans of frustration as tower version 1.0 awkwardly topples to the desk. The winning team (top left) achieved a 20" build.


Students then reflect on the challenge with help from a Ted Talk by Tom Wujec, an innovative practitioner of business visualization who uses design and technology to help groups solve problems and understand ideas. Data from thousands of marshmallow spaghetti challenges reveals that, aside from engineering professionals, kindergarteners and executive admins produce the highest towers.



What Makes a Successful Problem Solver?


Given Wujec's data, what attributes enable kindergarteners and executive admins to build above average marshmallow spaghetti towers?


  • Both groups are accustomed to dealing with the unknown

  • Both groups are creative

  • Neither group enters crisis mode

  • Kindergarteners do not burn time jockeying for power

  • Kindergarteners tend to develop prototypes, which allows for multiple design attempts

  • Executive Admins are expert facilitators of tasks that involve a process


Lessons from Wujec Specific to PCCAPS



PCCAPS students encounter a myriad of problems, from client communication to team knowledge gaps. The exercise in playing with food shows us all that problem solving abilities are just as important as learning trade specific skills. Problems arise across all project types. Specialized knowledge is critical, as in the engineering, coding and medical fields. However, the ability to step back from linear thinking is what differentiates a problem solver.


PCCAPS curriculum, coupled with a network of industry mentors, empowers students to take pause, recognize roadblocks, gather input, design solutions, and self-manage the problem solving process.



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