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Future Engineers Strain Spaghetti

Students build a spaghetti bridge

One by one, students watched their final projects fall apart.

That was by design.

Students in Engineering Innovation spent the better part of two weeks figuring out how to best build a bridge made of nothing more than spaghetti and epoxy glue. (photo gallery)

They used complex engineering principles. They complained they couldn’t get the sticky glue off their fingers. They said they had little interest in eating spaghetti anytime soon.

This summer, 36 students from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia attended the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus to participate in Engineering Innovation, a four-week college-level classed offered by the Whiting School of Engineering Center for Educational Outreach. In addition, more than 100 students took the class at the Homewood campus, and dozens more students took the class at sites in Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Washington State, the District of Columbia, and Frederick and Elkridge, Md.

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 a broad survey 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, 93 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.

“It keeps them active. It keeps them engaged,” said Sinuhe Gutierrez, a physics teacher at Northwest High School who taught Engineering Innovation this summer. “Kids love to build things. It’s a good way to align what they learn in class with real life.”

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 – a few other noodle shapes were allowed – 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.

“They have to study the behavior of spaghetti in tension and compression,” Gutierrez said. “They get surprised how much weight those bridges can actually hold.”

Engineering Innovation first was offered at the Montgomery County Campus 14 years ago. Since 2006, the Whiting School of Engineering has offered the course nationally. More than 3,000 students have taken the class since '06.

Of Engineering Innovation alumni, 94 percent said the course taught them how math and science apply to real-world problems.

Approximately 91 percent said the course helped them understand what engineers do and how they think.

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.

Fred Katiraie, an Engineering Innovation instructor for JHU and a math faculty member at Montgomery College, emphasized to students the career paths they can pursue with a firm understanding of engineering.

“The sky is the limit,” Katiraie said. “You can do all sorts of things with it. It’s incredible, the opportunities.”

William Evans, a rising sophomore at the Bullis School, said Engineering Innovation gave him a chance to explore and figure out what he liked about engineering. Civil engineering appealed to him, he said.

“I developed a bunch of skills I’ll be able to use later on,” William said.

Emily Yin, Tim McIntyre and Kartik Krishnan, all students at Poolesville High School, built the winning bridge among Montgomery County Campus Engineering Innovation students. Their bridge held approximately 35 pounds. (The record stands at 132 pounds.)

Why did their bridge do so well?

“Our top beams were very strong,” Tim said. “We put a lot of glue on them.”

Emily’s response?


Media Coverage:
Washington Post
Ch. 5Ch. 9
Montgomery County Public Schools video
Germantown Pulse


CATEGORY: Academics, K-12 Outreach