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Using their Noodles for Science's Sake

Using their Noodles for Science's Sake
By Elizabeth Koh
The Washington Post


Building a bridge can be a good test of engineering skills, requiring consideration of weight, strength and flexibility. As dozens of students gathered around a table to begin their own creations, they learned that their building material would be something not usually associated with any of those concepts: raw spaghetti.

As part of a Johns Hopkins University summer program, groups of students were tasked with designing bridges made of dry spaghetti and glue to learn just how much weight a few boxes of noodles could support. Jared Horwitz, 16, worked with two classmates dipping noodles in epoxy and constructing a truss bridge of triangular parts that he hoped would answer the question.

“It took two or three boxes,” he said. And several days.

Destroying it took less than a minute.

Horwitz joined 43 other local high school students Friday morning, in teams of two and three, to see whose creation could bear the most weight before collapsing. They and many eager parents crowded into a lecture hall on the university’s Montgomery County campus to watch the loud and occasionally sticky conclusion to a four-week program aimed at encouraging future engineers.

As concerns mount that U.S. schools are failing to train the next generation of scientists and researchers, the Engineering Innovation summer program tries to illustrate principles through hands-on projects, program director Karen Borgsmiller said. Students assemble model cars with sensors and design functioning traps that can capture table-tennis balls. But the noodle bridge has been the capstone feature since the program was cooked up in 2006.

“It’s very cheap to work with. It’s very abundant,” said Fred Katiraie, a Montgomery College professor who co-teaches the summer program. “I can just run out to the Safeway to get more.”

The brittle spaghetti strands also leave little room for error. “It makes the design very important,” Katiraie said.

The students, attending sessions in Elkridge and Rockville, had a rigid set of rules: Bridges could be no heavier than 250 grams (8.8 ounces), no shorter than 50 cm (19.6 inches) and no taller than 25 cm (9.8 inches). Any variance led to swift penalties.

Students said the project was an opportunity to explore what to them was a previously little-known field.

“We had a physics class, but there wasn’t a lot of application,” said Horwitz, a rising junior at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.

The summer program allowed them to put those principles into practice. Horwitz and his teammates glued the noodles together in groups of four and six to construct hollow cylindrical beams as their bridge’s main support structure.

“There’s more surface area because they’re hollow inside,” explained teammate Michael Weinberger, a fellow Jewish Day junior. “That makes them stronger.”

Michelle Warmack, whose older son, Kevin, decided on his own to apply for the program, said her teenager gave few details about the program — Warmack found out about the bridge ceremony from an e-mail, she said.

But he did give his mother one hint: “He did say at dinner that it probably wouldn’t last very long,” she said.

Instructors kept track of progress on a spreadsheet projected onto a screen as anxious students strapped goggles on and hooked circular weights to their bridges, one by one. Some collapsed spectacularly, shattering onto the carpet. One enterprising team saw the bottom fall out of its bridge after just a few kilos were added, although the rest remained intact.

“We’re the future of engineers?” asked student Caleb Gershengorn, watching from the last row of students. “I’m terrified.”

Gershengorn, Weinberger and Horwitz watched as bridge after bridge fell apart. One bore more than 50 pounds before the metal hook snapped through the bottom of the structure.

Weinberger tugged reassuringly at their own hook: “It’s good, we’re strong.”

The second-to-last team to test their bridge, Gershengorn, Weinberger and Horwitz skipped up to the stage, stretching their shoulders before sliding the weights on.

The bridge held under the first weight, but it snapped at three kilos. Afterward, they identified the problem: They hadn’t fully glued the bottom of the bridge.

“All of the beams we made held. They just didn’t attach well,” Gershengorn said.

Still, they whooped proudly and gave each other high-fives before Muhammad Kehnemouyi, the other instructor, doled out gift cards to the first- and second-place winners. The real prize was waiting upstairs — a free lunch to cap their month-long adventure.

“Pizza,” said Gershengorn decisively when asked what he wanted to eat. He gestured to a fragment of the glue-caked noodle bridge: “I’m done with this stuff.”

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