[Featured Image: The winners of Carbone’s Spaghetti Bridge Engineering competition pose with their awards. Pictured Left to Right: Ian Merendino, William Crites, Mrs. Cheryl Harper, Christopher Writt]
51 pounds, 6 ounces – that was how much it took to break a pasta bridge constructed by three GS juniors at Carbone’s annual Pasta Engineering competition.
“You have to build a bridge that’s a meter long at least, under a kilogram, and the goal is to get the bridge to hold as much weight as possible before it ultimately breaks,” junior William Crites, one of the three winners, said.
On March 12th, Crites and his two teammates, Ian Merendino and Christopher Writt, were just one of 23 teams from all over western PA that crowded into St. Vincent University’s Fred Rogers Hall. Each team carried with them a bridge they constructed out of spaghetti and lasagna. Each bridge was tested to its limits, and the weight it held was listed as the team’s score.
The trio of juniors were the last to put their bridge to test, and took the win by almost 10 whole pounds. Juniors Scott Armentrout and Peter Mica, whose bridge looked set to take second with 41 lbs 6 oz, still took a third place trophy home.
Carbone’s only gives awards to the three strongest bridges (plus one for aesthetics), but all of the GS teams did well. Second place may have eluded them, but every GS bridge held at least 20 lbs. It pays to be knowledgeable in modern bridge design and material science.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of physics behind it,” senior Peter Laskoski said. “We spent weeks studying structural design of bridges in real life and what makes a good solid bridge.”
Laskoski’s team didn’t place in the top three, but its bridge held a respectable 27 lbs 8 oz, enough to top well over half of their competition.
At the beginning, there were plenty of choices to make and designs to pick. Trusses, cables, suspension wires, as well as basic aspects such as shape and size were all considerations for the competitors. However, Crites, Merendino and Writt knew what they wanted.
“We chose the arch bridge,” Crites recounted. “Since all the weight was load-bearing in only the center of the bridge, and there was no need to have the weight distributed evenly, the arch-bridge was structurally the most sound.”
Crites was referring to the fact that the testing weights aren’t put on the bridge itself, but are added to a bucket that is hung on a hook at the center of the bridge’s base. This means that the team didn’t need to design a bridge optimized to hold weight along its entire length, just at its center.
“Our entire class modeled their bridges after practically the same design,” Laskoski said. “We modeled our bridge after previous designs that our school has done that have won in the past.”
In recent years, the arch design has proven its effectiveness by dominating the competition. The record holding bridge to date clocked in at an astounding 109 pounds. That legendary bridge used a large number of “cables,” just one noodle thick, to help to distribute the weight over a sturdy arch. This year, the top three teams attempted the simple design, hoping to reap the benefits. But of course, just because the design was simple does not mean it was easy to build.
“One of the issues was making sure the arches were as symmetrical as possible,” Crites said.
To build the most symmetrical bridge they could, Crites’ team used a variety of tools, including placing a frame of nails in a board to curve the arches just right. The entire way through, the trio used careful measurements, precise gluing and teamwork.
“We had to come up with the best possible idea,” Crites noted. “Usually Ian would come up with the first idea, then Chris and I would revise that. Then we’d all three come to an understanding on how to address the issue.”
Even when the various hurdles of building the bridges were jumped, getting the structures to St. Vincent was still a challenge. And remember, they’re made out of spaghetti.
“We were nervous the bridge was going to break just walking through the door,” Laskoski said. “That was probably the most nervous I was.”
Before their various other design choices were put to the test, each competing bridge was given a display spot in the Fred Rogers Hall. Each of the 23 unique bridges, traditional and hybrid, painted and unpainted, all sat on tables throughout the hall. Spectators could indulge in refreshments and admire the design of every bridge, while competitors could scope out their competition. Meanwhile, every bridge was weighed, measured and inspected by the moderators to ensure it followed the specifications laid down months earlier. GS teams made sure to keep an eye on the other arch bridges.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking walking around, seeing the other bridges,” Laskoski said. “There were definitely some well-designed bridges from other schools that gave us a run for our money.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that building a bridge out of dry spaghetti is not easy. If a bridge isn’t properly fortified, small asymmetries can make a bridge twist, lean or buckle unexpectedly under enough weight. Thus, during the competition, minor mistakes could quickly become major concerns. Competitors are sure to watch for even small issues every step of the way.
“In the end, it just comes down to good joints and good symmetry,” Crites said.
According to Laskoski, their bridge would have done much better if not for one small oversight.
“The bridge worked as planned,” he said confidently. “From a structural point of view, the arch was pretty well done. The downfall was that we overlooked a very, very tiny detail in our bridge.”
Laskoski’s team noticed early on that their base wasn’t completely level. In his own words, the issue ended up being “makeshift” taken care of, but not properly fixed.
“When we looked at the footage, that was exactly where our bridge broke,” he said.
Crites, Merendino and Writt had better luck. They were the last team to bring their bridge up, and had a brief mishap with the scale before clocking in at 51 lbs 6 oz, surpassing the standing winner by almost 10 pounds.
The number scored by the team of junior boys is certainly impressive, but less than half of the standing record. So then what was it that stopped them from getting any higher?
“It worked as planned,” Crites said. “Everything was going well with our bridge. Until…”
Crites’ team had the same adversary as Laskoski’s team: the base.
“We didn’t make our base long enough, so the bridge didn’t break the way it was supposed to,” Crites explained. “The amount of weight caused it to flex, and it just slid off the side.”
But a victory is a victory, and despite their shortcomings, Crites and Laskoski were both glad they were able to participate and grateful for the conceptual science in Honors Modern Physics.
“I think in that part of HMP, we learned a lot,” Crites said. “I mean, I didn’t know anything about tension or compression beforehand.”
Laskoski didn’t think they would have made it without HMP either.
“Not just anybody can pick up a pile of spaghetti and some hot glue and make a bridge that can hold even five pounds,” Laskoski chuckled. “Or one pound.”
And that’s true. A handful of teams from other schools walked away with a score around two or three pounds. Sadly, a few teams even got a score of zero.
“You have to have some conceptual knowledge of what you’re doing to even attempt to make a bridge out of pasta,” Laskoski added. “We learned a lot about bridges and forces and tension prior to building the bridges. This is just kind of an added on project that Mrs. Harper does for us so we get some experience with forces and tension.”
Crites and Laskoski both agree that Carbone’s Pasta Bridge competition fits within the Honors Modern Physics curriculum. Though bridges may not be as exclusively modern as particle physics – a subject covered in the same class – bridge physics is obviously still relevant.
“Obviously, we’re still going to be building bridges in the future,” Crites said. “So it’s good to learn and I would consider [the competition] a part of Honors Modern Physics because it encompasses many of the aspects of modern physics that we still use today.”