Educators tackle ITD's pasta structure challenge

“Ta-dah” turned to “uh-oh” for groups of teachers attempting to build freestanding towers out of dry spaghetti and bits of masking tape.

About 50 teachers participated in the ITD education outreach activity on Wednesday (Aug. 3) at Stevens-Henager College in Nampa where each leaning tower of pasta strained under the punishing weight of a single 0.2-ounce marshmallow.

ITD Engineer Monica Crider and Senior Human Resource Specialist Michelle George facilitated the session as part of the Idaho Department of Labor Business Educator Exchange.

The Business Educator Exchange is a partnership of the labor office in Canyon County, local businesses, Northwest Nazarene University and educators. Teachers earn professional development credits and learn strategies and activities that connect their curriculum to the workplace.

Department volunteers use the tower exercise frequently when they introduce students to engineering. This was the first time teachers participated in the activity, and George noticed a difference in how the groups performed.

“In my opinion, the teachers were much more worried about the rules versus getting the structures built,” George explained. “When working with students last month, they constructed the towers and then modified the structures to conform to the rules.”

Crider said she was surprised at how competitive people get when participating in the activity. “It’s amazing how spaghetti and a marshmallow can stir the competitive spirit,” she said. “They want to win.”

The 18-minute exercise, created by Peter Skillman, forces people to collaborate very quickly, according to Tom Wujec, a designer who uses design and technology to help groups solve problems and understand ideas.

Most people begin by orienting themselves to the task of building a tower, Wujec explains in an online video. They talk about it, figure out what it’s going to look like, jockey for power, and then they plan, sketch, organize material and lay out spaghetti.

They spend much of their time building ever-growing structures until the last three minutes when they gingerly place the marshmallow on top, step back and watch as their “Ta-dah” moment typically turns into an “uh-oh” moment as the structure fails because of the weight of the marshmallow.

Wujec says that among groups that do poorly in the exercise are recent business school graduates. Kindergarten graduates, architects and engineers are some of the best performers.

More outreach activities are planned for the coming school year. For information about ITD’s outreach program or to volunteer, contact George at 334-8845 or e-mail her at

Photos: Fifty Canyon County teachers, in small groups of four (top), tackled ITD’s challenge to assemble a freestanding tower out of dry spaghetti capable of supporting a single large marshmallow. ITD’s Monica Crider (middle) measures the height of a completed tower structure. Nearly half the towers failed to remain standing when the marshmallow was added. A team of teachers (above left) analyzes construction materials available for completing the tower exercise. One team experiences a “ta-dah” moment (above right) when their tower remained standing and successfully supported a marshmallow.

Published 8-5-2011