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Oh Snap! Engineering Innovation Program Tests Strength of Spaghetti Bridges

spaghetti bridge breaks.jpg

Glue, spaghetti, and a whole lot of physics and calculus.

That’s what it takes to make a bridge in Engineering Innovation.

Engineering Innovation is a four-week summer program held at the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus, as well as other sites in Maryland, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. This year, 43 students participated at the site in Montgomery County; about 400 students participated nationwide.

The Montgomery County course attracted students from the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia region and from Mexico, China and Taiwan.

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 could decide whether they want to major in engineering in college. Many of them do: In the most recent survey, 89 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.
“They get to see how the math and science they are learning is directly used in engineering, and they begin to understand that engineering develops 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and communication,” said Christine Newman, assistant dean for Engineering Educational Outreach. “One of my favorite projects is the mousetrap project.  Students are asked to design a mousetrap with limited materials and a design constraint.  They design and build it and then they have to write instructions for another student to build it.  This hones their writing skills.  Lots of laughter ensues when what they thought were simple instructions turn out to be misunderstood.  It emphasizes the importance of communication in engineering.”

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 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.

The winning team’s bridge held 7.87 kilos, about 17 pounds. The bridge was designed by Tony Chen, Jerry Chou and Roger Guo. Tony and Roger are from China; Jerry is from Taiwan.

Their bridge design appeared simpler than other teams’ bridges: It was essentially flat. Even instructor Fred Katiraie was skeptical a flat bridge would do well.

“We focused on the fundamental aspect of the bridge: decking,” Jerry said. Winning, he said, “is definitely an honor for us. Just stick to what you truly believe. Don’t be scared by other people’s designs. This is a very valuable learning experience.”

Yinka Alawode, 17, of Bethesda, attends Sidwell Friends School. He is interested in physics and wanted to see what engineering is about because his exposure to engineering is limited at his school.

“I never felt like I was overwhelmed,” Yinka said. “Everything we did was at a level we could understand but it was still challenging. There are always people around you that would help you out. For being a four-week course, you learn a lot of things from different categories of engineering. There’s really a lot you can gain from the course.”

Anita Iyer, a dermatologist and former engineer, said her son, Keshav, enjoyed his summer at JHU. Keshav is going to be a junior at Churchill High School.

“My son has been fascinated with airplanes since he was a year old,” Iyer said. “Engineering has always been of interest to him. (Engineering Innovation) reinforced his interest in engineering. He got an understanding of the practical aspects of engineering, the financial aspects, the economic, the political.  He really enjoyed himself.”

CATEGORY: Academics, K-12 Outreach, In The Community