Event is food for thought

Engineering: First-year Hopkins students build bridges out of 1 1/2 pounds of spaghetti.

November 10, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Yevgeniy Semenov's hands shook as he gently added metal weight after metal weight to a chain suspended from the center of a bridge made entirely of uncooked spaghetti.

It is usually better suited to marinara sauce than mechanical engineering, but Semenov and two fellow 18-year-old freshmen at the Johns Hopkins University had spent several long nights and gallons of glue turning thin strands of pasta into a miniature highway structure, complete with arches, struts and supports.

Spanning the gap between two tables, the bridge did its main job -- holding the 22 pounds necessary for the three to win the reward of skipping their final exam for their introductory engineering class.

But the bridge held up a lot more before Semenov, of Owings Mills, put on the last weight and drew cheers from the more than 100 spectators taking in the suspense of the class's 10th annual Spaghetti Bridge Contest: 132 pounds.

Then came the snap -- and a collective "oh" from the spellbound crowd -- as the structure shattered, dropping the weights to the floor with a bang.

The 132 pounds was enough for Semenov and partners David Pollicino of Long Island, N.Y., and Abigail Robinson of New York City to win the first prize of $100.

"We had no idea," Robinson said of their bridge holding so great a load. "We thought it would maybe hold 10" kilograms, or 22 pounds.

Seventeen teams created bridges, each using a pound and a half of spaghetti. Before the competition, students learned about the properties of different materials and the strength of structures. They used computer models to try different designs.

Then they got to try the engineering principles themselves, said their professor, Michael Karweit. "They begin to understand what an engineering project entails. ... It's kind of a trial by fire," he said.

The record weight held by a student bridge is just less than 141 pounds, Karweit said. His own design, tested after the students were done yesterday, held 176 pounds for several seconds before collapsing in a shower of broken noodles.

Gesturing to a 35-pound weight, Karweit told the spectators, "A pound and a half of spaghetti can hold that thing, with the right design and three sleepless nights."

Indeed, many of the students stayed up past 2 a.m. finishing their bridges. Most had their sights set on avoiding the final exam, a goal far more valuable than the $100 captured by Semenov and Co.

That was clearly important to Mark Butler, Sean Ferguson and Philip Kwon, who jumped up and down and exchanged high-fives when their bridge held 37 pounds, the adjusted weight required for using too much pasta in their engineering recipe.

"We decided to do a very basic design," said Butler, of Roselle Park, N.J., before the contest began. "We just want to pass."

He said he thinks the project is a good lesson in engineering but acknowledged that he got nervous when he lifted the weights that the spans were expected to hold.

The students are often amazed when they hold the weight in their hands, then see their fragile structures sustain it, Karweit said. "I think the realization they can do it is a big thing," he said.

As for what she learned, Robinson said, "the value of teamwork and the importance of epoxy."

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