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Building Bridges: Engineering Innovation Students Construct Bridges from Spaghetti and Glue

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The tension in the auditorium was palpable as one by one, teams of high school students were called to the front to test their final engineering projects: bridges made of nothing more than spaghetti and epoxy.

Some bridges held only a few pounds before they shattered, sending spaghetti strands flying all over the floor. Other bridges were more durable. And the winning bridge held 14 kilograms – approximately 31 pounds.

Not bad for uncooked pasta.

“I didn’t expect it to hold that much weight,” said Andrei Kotliarov, 15, one of the students on the winning team.

The spaghetti bridge competition is the culminating challenge for Engineering Innovation, a four-week summer program held at the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus. The program also is offered at other sites in Maryland, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. This year, 41 students participated at the site in Montgomery County; more than 500 students participated nationwide.

The Montgomery County course attracted students from the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia region.

The college-level course is offered by the Whiting School of Engineering Center for Educational Outreach. Students learned to think and problem solve like engineers while learning about different types of engineering, including mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering and robotics. Their confidence grew as they attended college-level lectures, solved problems and tested theories. 

The idea behind the class is to give high school students an overview of engineering so they can decide whether they want to major in engineering in college. Many of them do: Of Engineering Innovation alumni, more than 80 percent have gone on to major in engineering or science.

To qualify for the program, students need already to have taken algebra II, trigonometry and a lab science. During the summer class, students take quizzes, do lab reports, work together on group projects and take a final exam. Students who earn an A or B in the class receive three Johns Hopkins credits.

The class days were half lecture, half lab, giving students plenty of hands-on opportunities to practice what they were learning. Students tested their skills by doing remote measurements, building robotic cars, designing and building mousetraps and completing a chemical processes lab. By applying their knowledge of math and science to labs and hands-on projects, the concepts they learn in their classrooms are linked to real-world practice.

Many high schools do not offer an engineering course and, of those that do, some offer a four-year program that ties up student’s elective options, said Christine Newman, assistant dean for Engineering Educational Outreach.

“This summer program gives all students a chance to try out engineering and learn about the various fields of engineering while being challenged by the college-level instruction and being with motivated peers,” Newman said. “It’s an intense course, with 14 weeks condensed into four weeks, so the students are learning new content quickly and applying it to hands-on labs and projects immediately.  Students gain critical-thinking skills that they can use in engineering or any STEM field or simply in navigating life’s challenges.”

The highlight of the course was the spaghetti bridge project. Students, working in teams, made bridges out of nothing more than dry spaghetti and epoxy glue. They tested the spaghetti under tension and compression, learned about statistics and structures, and used a software tool to design the bridges.

Each team could use no more than a half pound of spaghetti. The maximum height of the bridge could not exceed 25 centimeters. The maximum weight of the bridge could not exceed 250 grams.

On the last day of class, students gathered in the auditorium for the spaghetti bridge ceremony. Kilo by kilo, they added weights to the bridges until they shattered.

In addition to Kotliarov, a Wootton High sophomore, the other students on the winning team were Eashan Siddalingaiah, 15, a Poolesville High sophomore; Jared Boyd, 15, a Wootton sophomore; and Spencer Schenk, 17, a Walter Johnson senior. All of them are interested in pursuing engineering or computer science in the future.

They used short pieces of spaghetti, realizing the shorter the pieces, the more force they would hold under compression.

“I like building this type of thing and I made one out of balsa wood a while ago so I kind of knew what to do,” Schenk said. The course, he said, “helped me see more about electrical, mechanical and other parts of engineering that I wouldn’t otherwise have known.”


CATEGORY: Academics, K-12 Outreach