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Future Engineers Fueled by Pasta

Students gather around noodle creation

These future engineers were fueled by pasta.

Spaghetti and glue were their materials as they spent weeks laboring to build a bridge that would carry a heavy load. (photo gallery)

Approximately 30 high school students attended Engineering Innovation at the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus. Hailing from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Puerto Rico, these students participated in a four-week college-level course offered by the Whiting School of Engineering Center for Educational Outreach. In addition to the students taking the class in Rockville, approximately 400 students participated in sites in Washington State, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Frederick and Elkridge.

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. (watch video)

The idea behind the class is to give high school students an overview of engineering so they could decide whether they want to major in engineering in college. Many of them do: Since the program’s launch, 86 percent of alumni 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 cards, 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.

Emily Shin, 16, is interested in pursuing a career in engineering. The rising junior at Walter Johnson High School, said Engineering Innovation gave her the ability to think through problems first, and find solutions later. “You really start to look at the world with a different point of view,” she said. “I learned a lot more about engineering than I would have in my entire high school career.”

Karl Scherf, 16, a rising junior at Wootton High School, is interested in studying computers and math. He is fascinated by moving parts. “I always want to take apart something and see how it works,” said Scherf, who has participated in myriad JHU summer programs, including the Center for Talented Youth. “In high school, it’s usually just you and you focus on your grade. Here we have a team and want to get the project done well and together.”

The highlight of the course was the spaghetti bridge project. Students, working in teams of three, made bridges out of nothing more than dry spaghetti and epoxy glue. They designed their bridges using sophisticated computer software, and then used the materials to turn their designs into reality.

Each team could use no more than a half pound of spaghetti. The maximum vertical depth 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.

The winning bridge from Montgomery County Campus students carried 11 kilograms. Elkridge students traveled to Rockville to participate with the Montgomery County students. The winning Elkridge bridge held 20 kilograms.

Engineering Innovation first was offered at the Montgomery County Campus 15 years ago. Since 2006, the Whiting School of Engineering has offered the course nationally to more than 3,000 students.

Many students know little about engineering because it isn’t taught in most high schools. While students learn math, physics, chemistry and other sciences, engineering courses usually are reserved for the college curriculum, said Muhammad Kehnemouyi, an Engineering Innovation instructor for JHU and dean of science, engineering and technology at Montgomery College. Most students know of engineering only from relatives and friends. But a great demand exists for engineers, so students should be exposed at an earlier age.

“Applying their knowledge of math and science to labs and hands-on projects, concepts they’ve learned in their high school classrooms are suddenly linked to real-world practice,” said Fred Katiraie, an Engineering Innovation instructor for JHU and a math faculty member at Montgomery College. “Students realize to take their upcoming high school math and science courses more seriously in order to be better prepared for future college-level courses.”

CATEGORY: Academics, K-12 Outreach