The towers of toothpicks with marshmallows cementing their precarious joints that Marlene Armstrong's gifted and talented eighth-graders built were meant to teach them the importance of planning.
At the lesson's starting point, students eagerly jabbed toothpicks into pink, yellow and green marshmallows. At least one group wrapped the plastic bag that had held marshmallows around the tower to increase the structure's chances of standing.
After the time allowed expired, students stopped holding up their towers, many of the structures promptly collapsed.
Armstrong asked the students, would they have built better towers with more time? With better materials? With a better plan? Students generally agreed that with more time, better towers would likely be possible.
"The purpose is not to teach you how to build (a tower) with toothpicks and marshmallows," Armstrong said.
Rather, the seven-and-a-half minute endeavor served as a precursor to the real lesson: helping the fictitious, multi-national Acme soft drink company devise a new lemon lime-flavored soda.
The eighth-graders, divided into finance, production, marketing and corporate citizen groups, will need to build their part of a successful plan for an ultimately successful soda.
Not only will the students need to mediate conflicts within their groups, but they will need to defend their plans to the other groups during a company-wide meeting.
"I purposely put you in groups where you may not be with your best friend," Armstrong told Acme's newest business leaders. Marketing or corporate responsibility may have different ideas from finance, she added. "The reason there is conflict is so you guys learn the essential skills you need."
The curriculum, designed for gifted and talented students, comes from the Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies, a corporate citizenship program from one of America's largest companies. Arizona State University received a grant from the program, and Armstrong attended a workshop where she discovered the opportunity.
The students meet with Armstrong one day each week for 40 minutes in the class that combines science, technology, engineering, math and business.
On a recent Tuesday, Armstrong's eighth-graders, newly equipped with the power of planning, set about building success for Acme.
The corporate citizenship group pondered the merits of caffeine as they plodded through their information packets.
"When does it stop talking about caffeine?" wondered Annette Utz. Andrew Kitts noted he'd recently received an e-mail warning about high levels of caffeine. The group eventually decided against caffeine, and then settled, with little debate, on making 20-ounce wide-mouth, plastic bottles.
"Is plastic recyclable?" Kitts asked.
His peers assured him it was.