WINCHESTER — The goal was to build the tallest tower possible using only uncooked spaghetti noodles, tape and miniature marshmallows.
The completed structures had to be freestanding and sturdy enough to support the weight of a large marshmallow for at least 20 seconds.
Four competing teams had 30 minutes to finish the task, and the winners would hold a coveted trophy for a year.
Challenges of this sort are common at area middle schools, but this time the edge-of-your-seat action involved adults at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Transatlantic Division headquarters in Frederick County. The four teams were comprised of professional engineers, contract specialists and program management personnel, plus a visiting intern from Handley High School in Winchester.
Col. Philip Secrist, commander of the division's Middle East District, offered words of encouragement, emphasized the towers could not be anchored or held down, and gave the signal to start.
The nearly 400 civilians and military personnel stationed at the Transatlantic Division are among the best in the engineering field, with their accomplishments including construction of a flyover bridge in Bahrain, repairs to an airport runway in Jordan, expansion of the electrical grid in Afghanistan, and the stabilization of what had been one of the most dangerous hydroelectric dams in the world, Mosul Dam in Iraq.
On Thursday afternoon, though, their most important project was building camaraderie while celebrating National Engineers Week.
"It's a good way to have some fun over lunch, while at the same time sharing some of the principles used by engineers," Secrist said.
When the annual event began several years ago, Office of Public Affairs Director Joe Macri said staff members built load-bearing structures using popsicle sticks. They eventually switched to spaghetti noodles, though, because the overachieving engineers constructed bridges that could hold more than 700 pounds.
The first team at Tuesday's competition had three members, including contract specialist Chris Krisrata from last year's winning ensemble.
"I'm 35. I don't care about winning stuff anymore," a confident yet nonchalant Krisrata said as he stabilized the top of his team's growing tower.
The second team featured an engineer and four employees from the division's program management staff. While their tower had respectable height, it also leaned severely to one side.
"Much like our work in the Middle East, we have to be adaptive to all strange situations," team member Rebecca Moser said while using a miniature marshmallow to link two spaghetti noodles.
Team 3 was comprised of four engineers, plus 17-year-old Handley High School senior Sally Sydnor.
"We already had a plan in mind before we started," said Sally, who plans to study engineering at the University of Virginia. "It's not mine, but I've definitely done my best to help."
The fourth team featured four interns who work with the division's contract specialists. Even though their crooked, twisted tower seemed in peril of toppling at any moment, designer Sam Cornwell boldly guaranteed victory.
Roger Vogler, chief of the engineering division, kept a watchful eye on the contestants. When asked how he would feel if his engineers lost to the contract specialists or program management employees, he refused to consider the question.
"That's not going to happen," Vogler said.
At the end of the 30-minute competition, Macri and Secrist tested each tower to see if it could support the weight of a large marshmallow.
The rickety towers built by the second and fourth teams collapsed within seconds.
The third team's tower was solid and sound and reached an impressive height of 30 inches.
The first team's tower — the one that defending champion Krisrata helped to construct — was 39 inches tall and had no problem holding the large marshmallow, so it was clear they had won the competition.
Or had they?
At the outset, contestants were told the towers had to be freestanding. However, the first and third teams taped their tower bases to tabletops and were disqualified.
Since Teams 2 and 4 built towers that collapsed, it appeared there would be no winner. But a member of the first team pointed to a tiny 15-inch tower the interns built for practice at the start of the competition, which had been supporting the weight of a large marshmallow for nearly 30 minutes.
That meant the tiniest tower in the competition — one which drew comparisons to Charlie Brown's remarkably unremarkable Christmas tree — won the day.
Team 1 offered its tiny, humble tower to Secrist for display in his office.
"That's OK," Secrist said. "I'm good."