In the Classroom: Straw Tower Engineering

In the Classroom: Straw Tower Engineering

Once a quarter, engineering students take over Building 15’s big ground-floor study room. Working in teams of five, they build build load-bearing, earthquake-proof bridges with working elevators — out of drinking straws.

Each team chooses a table and sets out supplies: Masking tape, cardboard, Styrofoam, Dixie cups, and straws. Focus is not a problem; it’s going to be time. When instructor Scott Piecuch gives the “start” signal, the students have only one hour.

Time starts ticking.

The teams have their plans laid out. They’ve done the design – triangular pillars, four-pillar towers, and pillars reinforced by X-shaped support beams are popular — and they can refer to the models they made during the construction dry run a few days earlier. However, none of these efforts guarantees smooth sailing.

“We’ll see if they make it,” said Piecuch dispassionately. “They seem to be struggling.”

As the struggle gets real, team members cheer each other to the finish line.

“Guys! Keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing – faster!” urges a member of Team Hot Sriracha.

“I think you’re on to something!” enthuses a teammate, who is buzzing around the table at top speed, masking tape in hand.

“It’s 11:06. We have 20 minutes,” warns a member of team Agree to Disagree.

“Sharpie! Sharpie!” cries another engineer from across the room.

As 11:15am approaches, towers rise from tabletops, and bridges are taped to the towers. Weight testing starts, and adjustments are made. The students clearly understand that time is of the essence, but Piecuch reminds them anyway.

“At the end of 10 minutes, if you’re still working, you’re going to be charged 80 grand.”

“Per minute?”

“Per minute.”

“OMG!!”

Ten minutes fly by, and Piecuch counts down: “3-2-1!”

Team Hot Sriracha backs away from the table, relief on their faces; their bridge is done. Everyone else keeps working frantically. Cost overruns will hurt their final score, but not as much as failing a functionality test.

Now it’s test time. Piecuch checks each team’s work: Does the elevator work? How many marbles can it bring to the top? Can the bridge hold 50 grams without collapsing? For the earthquake test, he enlists a partner. Each grabs a table edge and starts shaking.

Some of the marbles go up on conveyer belts. Some go up in a Starbucks cup. To the engineers’ dismay, some don’t go up at all, their conveyer belt engines having burned out during the test phase. Students count 32 marbles as they drop onto team Hot Sriracha’s top span.

“We’re having Shirley Temples tonight!” gloats a team member.

None of the towers collapse under the weight test, though one leans dangerously to the side. All survive the earthquake test. None of these bridges collapsed like Galloping Gertie.

Piecuch takes notes on each test. After the contest, he tallies up each team’s score and announces the engineering contest results:

  1. Hot Sriracha
  2. WWXB
  3. Tower Titans
  4. Agree to Disagree
  5. Fantastic 5

Most engineering classes aren’t this hands-on. So much of what an engineering student needs to learn is abstract: math, physics, design. This class is a fun reminder that, in the workplace, engineering is often a team sport – and that real-world functionality is the ultimate test of any engineering design.

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