Hands-on Activity: Leaning Tower of Pasta
Educational Standards :
Learning Objectives (Return to Contents)
After this activity, students should be able to:
Materials List (Return to Contents)
Each group needs:
Introduction/Motivation (Return to Contents)
Have you ever wondered how really tall buildings stay up? Why do sky scrapers not fall down when wind hits them? Engineers work with architects and scientists to understand what makes materials break, and then use what they learn to design strong structures. Today, you will have the opportunity to figure out how to make a strong structure, too. Sometimes, engineers may be able to find very strong materials, but they cannot use them in a structure because the material are too expensive. Sometimes, engineers cannot use as much material as they might like due to budget or supply limitations. Just like an engineer, today you will be constrained; you can only use a limited amount of materials. Your job is to design and build a structure that is as tall and strong as possible, using only marshmallows and spaghetti.
As you build, think about what forces will be acting upon your structure. Which parts will be pushed together — that is, which will experience compression — and which parts will be pulled apart — that is, which will be under tension. Is it better to have a piece of spaghetti or a marshmallow under tension? Under compression? How will you design the tallest, strongest structure using limited resources?
Procedure (Return to Contents)
Before the Activity
With the Students
- Discuss which structure was the tallest and held the most weight. Which structures had the highest ratio of load to structure weight? Which structures held the most weight, regardless of height, and why.
- Discuss the success or failure of the materials used. Spaghetti cannot hold much tension or compression; therefore, it breaks very easily. Marshmallows handle compression well, but do not hold up to tension (the spaghetti can slip out of them).
- Which geometric shapes seemed the strongest for holding weight — triangles, squares, or circles?
Attachments (Return to Contents)
Safety Issues (Return to Contents)
The rigid, long pasta could injure an eye. Although this is an activity with a lot of freedom, students should not horseplay with the spaghetti.
Troubleshooting Tips (Return to Contents)
Before students start construction, be sure they understand where you will add weight to their structure to test it. Knowing this should be a consideration in their structure design. For example, it is difficult to add weight to a tall, narrow tower.
Assessment (Return to Contents)
Discussion Question: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses.
Activity Embedded Assessment
Worksheet: Have the students complete the activity worksheet; review their answers to gauge their mastery of the subject.
Pairs Check: After student teams finish their worksheets, have them compare answers with a peer group, giving all students time to finish the worksheet.
Class Presentations: Have the student groups take turns presenting the structures to the rest of the class. Ask them to explain where the forces tension and compression are taking place. Have the class determine which shapes seem to be the strongest for holding up weight.
Toss-a-Question: Using questions 1-7 on the Standing Strong Worksheet, have students work in groups and toss a ball (or wad of paper) back and forth. The student with the ball asks a question and then tosses the ball to someone to answer. If a student does not know the answer, s/he tosses the ball onward until someone gets it. The person who gets the answer correct gets to start the next question. Review the answers at the end and have the students write down the correct answers on their worksheets.
Activity Extensions (Return to Contents)
Have the students build models using materials other than marshmallows and pasta, such as toothpicks, gumdrops, caramels, Popsicle sticks, etc. Which materials made even better buildings than spaghetti and marshmallows, and why? Have the students discuss these materials in terms of compression and tension.
Have the students design their own experiment to look at the geometry behind different structures. Which shape can hold the most weight — a triangle, square or circle? Challenge the students to explain their answers by creating diagrams showing the compression and tension forces on each shape.
ContributorsChris Yakacki, Ben Heavner, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Denise Carlson
Copyright© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.
The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0226322. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.
Supporting Program (Return to Contents)Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder
Last Modified: March 12, 2014