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Spaghetti challenge

 
 

Overview

Materials needed (per group)

  • A handful of dried spaghetti, around a quarter of a pack (you can use any type of spaghetti, but for fair testing purposes everyone should have the same brand).
  • 4 marshmallows
  • 1 chocolate egg

Teacher's materials

  • Metre ruler or tape measure
  • Stopwatch
  • Camera (optional)

How to run the Spaghetti Challenge

  • To set up this investigation you can either have each group working around a table or, if you have access to a school hall, you can use masking tape to mark out an area for each group to work in on the floor. Give out the equipment to each group – using chocolate eggs instead of real eggs will probably mean less mess! Remember to make sure that everyone gets the same amount of spaghetti and marshmallows.
  • Ensure all the students know how much time they have to do the challenge. It can be anything from 15 minutes to an hour depending on the different elements you may choose to include (see extension ideas).
  • The instruction for every group is that they must build the tallest free-standing tower that will hold the egg for at least 30 seconds, using only the equipment provided.
  • After the time limit is up, visit each group in turn and ask them to put their egg on their tower. If the tower is still standing after 30 seconds you should measure it and compare it to the other groups’ towers. Use a stopwatch or get the group to count out loud to 30 to ensure fair testing.

Practicalities

  • This investigation can cause some mess, so have cleaning materials and black bin bags available for clearing up afterwards. If you cut open bin liners you can use them as tablecloths or floor mats and this will enable you to roll up the mess ready for the bin at the end of the activity.
  • If you want to limit the mess further you can tell students that they have to use the marshmallows whole.
  • Have some hand wipes available as things will get sticky (especially in a hot room).
  • Try and keep the room you are working in cool to limit the mess further.
  • Contact your local supermarket and ask them to support the event by supplying the marshmallows, chocolate eggs and spaghetti. Explore whether they will supply prizes in the form of gift vouchers for their store as well.
  • Group sizes should be between 3 and 5 – which makes for a really good team-building exercise. Younger children may do better in smaller groups.
  • This activity also works well as a family challenge in Science Week or at open evenings.

Discussion

  • What building techniques make the tower stronger?
  • Does the placing of the marshmallows affect the strength of the tower?
  • Could you build a stronger tower with more of the same materials? What alternative materials would be better?
  • Does the size of the base alter the strength of the tower?
  • Is it possible to make a bridge using a similar method? How could you test it?
  • How do you think you worked as a group? Did you assume different roles? Did all groups work in the same way?

Extensions

  • Students could design their towers on paper before starting to build them. They could use this research time to look at other tall structures (see the links to everyday life below) and how they are built. Impressive ones include the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye, the Blackpool Tower, cranes, etc. When discussing what kind of tower they want to build they could tie this into what they have observed from these other structures.
  • Add an additional level to the investigation by giving each group half a packet of jelly babies as well as the other materials. Because jelly babies and marshmallows differ there is more scope for investigation: jelly babies are stronger, but also heavier, so there is the opportunity to discuss the real-life dilemmas that scientists and engineers face when designing structures.
  • Give students a budget and allow them to ‘buy’ additional equipment including jelly babies. Allow them time to try and build the tower with the items they originally have, and then at a later stage introduce these new products so that they can make an informed choice.
  • Investigate comparisons and fair testing of strength by using different brands of spaghetti. Is an economy brand necessarily less strong than a premium brand? Check the ingredients and see if you can work out why.
  • You can test the force needed to break a piece of spaghetti by pushing down on an electric set of scales with one vertical piece of spaghetti, noting down what mass is on the scales when it breaks. Try using a half length and then a quarter length and compare the difference. This will help to demonstrate that a taller structure is not as strong as a shorter one.
  • Give the students a sample of the materials for 5 mins at the start so they can ‘test them out’ and start to plan what they want to build. This could be combined with the planning on paper, but works better for more kinaesthetic groups as they get to ‘do’ whilst planning.
  • If you don’t want to use spaghetti or marshmallows you could try some of the other materials that teachers have used, such as grapes/raisins with blunt cocktail sticks/skewers.

Links to everyday life

Towers

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower in Paris is possibly the most famous tower in the world. This iron tower, built in the French capital between 1887 and 1889, was designed by the engineer Gustave Eiffel. Because Eiffel had built many bridges, he understood that the tower needed to be able to withstand high winds. So he used a lot of maths to work out what the design of the tower needed to be.

Cranes

Cranes

The first cranes were made in Ancient Greece and were used for building. Cranes are used for lifting and moving objects, most often at a height. They generally use a series of cables and a metal tower structure. All cranes have a counterweight to stop them toppling over when they are lifting heavy objects.

The Old Man of Hoy

Tall stack of rock

There are many naturally occurring strong structures. These include trees and rock formations. The Old Man of Hoy is a column of red sandstone 137 metres high in Scotland. It is probably less than 400 years old.

Supporting information

If you have students who are struggling you could show them the images on page 3 of the student activity sheet for inspiration. We have provided you with pictures of real world structures as well as examples of spaghetti towers.