Published: 29 February 2016

Brain food

Bridges, Education

The Spaghetti Bridge Challenge is an annual competition run at Sheffield University, designed to help young people discover structural engineering. Jon Carr, Chairman of our Yorkshire Regional Group, teaches at the University. Here he discusses the competition and how it helps inspire potential young engineers.

I have taught more or less full time at Sheffield University since 2011. It is a constant source of pleasure to work with students, seeing them develop, trying to inspire them and, in turn, being inspired by them.

In my own career I was greatly inspired by Tony Hunt, for whom I worked for 20 years, as well as legends like Ted Happold, Ove Arup, Peter Rice, Fazlur Khan and good old Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I am also constantly inspired by today's structures, which are going higher and longer - such as the Burj Khalifa and the Oresund Bridge, both of which I was lucky enough to visit last year.

The Spaghetti Bridge Challenge is a great way to get students interested in structural engineering. The idea is that competing teams design and build the bridges in spaghetti – which is a cheap, easy to find, yet challenging material to work with - and bring them along to be tested on the day. Each bridge must be freestanding, span 1 metre, be greater than 0.22 metres in height, and no more than 0.5KG in weight.

Competitors design and construct their bridges however they see fit, which means we get a good, diverse range of new and ingenious designs. The competition is designed with lower undergraduates in mind, but we encourage entries from schools and colleges too.

The initial competition was developed back in 2011-2012 by Hadi Arbabi and Boris Lazarov (then undergraduates at the department) who designed, organised, and ran the event until they graduated, when they handed over to the next generation - Aidan Mason has been runing the competititon since. It's been growing, slowly but surely, from 14 teams competing in 2013 to 21 in 2015 - the ambition is to make it a National Competition.

The idea was to enhance students’ practical understanding of structural analysis in an event that did not include examination or coursework - It was also rewarding to bring students from different universities together. By now the event also attracts industry professionals, making it a really fun, useful and informal networking opportunity for students eager to learn about careers from those in practice.

Over the years we’ve been particularly impressed by the team from the University of Manchester in 2011, which has been the only one so far to completely engineer their structure, working through several prototypes and evolving the design. Coventry University have also provided consistently strong entries, modifying their arch bridge design over the years.

This year's Spaghetti Bridge Challenge will be held at the University of Sheffield on 16 March. Anyone interested in taking part should let us know by 6 March - to register, just visit the website.

I’d encourage anyone interested in promoting engineering careers, whether school teachers, university departments or enterprising students, to set up a bridge building competition. It is a wonderful way to demonstrate the fundamentals of structural engineering in a fun, competitive atmosphere - and truly satisfying for everyone involved.


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