Teaching Students To Use Their Noodles

Jul 29, 2015
Originally published on August 27, 2015 2:18 pm

Imagine having to build a bridge — a strong bridge — out of nothing but epoxy and spaghetti.

Yeah, hard. Just ask one of the 160 high schoolers who recently finished Engineering Innovation, a rigorous, monthlong summer camp run by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a handful of other cities. They didn't just have to imagine it; they had to do it.

Students come from all over the world to get what is, for many, their first real taste of engineering in the classroom. The idea behind the program is simple: Give students a chance to explore complex ideas using remarkably simple tools.

Example: Measure the distance between two spires on the Hopkins campus using nothing but a few measuring sticks, string and tape.

Students also have to design a mousetrap out of nothing but paper, glue and rubber bands.

But the grand finale — the last big test for students — is the spaghetti bridge.

The Shatter

"I'm so scared right now," says Bidyut Mani, 16, playfully cringing as his team begins adding weight to their bridge.

It's the last day of camp, and Bidyut's team, Penne For Your Thoughts?, sits onstage in a campus auditorium surrounded by classmates and parents. Bidyut's on edge because students here are graded, and those who finish the month with at least a B-average earn three Johns Hopkins engineering credits.

When Bidyut's bridge — named Bridget, naturally — easily holds the minimum 6.5 pounds, he and his teammates cheer as if they've just won the competition. But for them, it's only beginning. Every team is expected to keep adding weight until this happens ...

The Rules

Bridges can weigh no more than half a pound and have to be made of spaghetti or other solid, cylindrical pastas — like capellini or vermicelli.

No ziti, people.

Too tall (over 10 inches) and points will be deducted. Ditto a bridge's weight. Anything over that half-pound and judges impose a stiff penalty.

Onstage, teams set their bridges over a 20-inch gap, hang a chain from the middle and begin ever-so-gently attaching weights.

You can tell how well a bridge is built not just by the weight it holds, but by how it breaks. A weaker bridge will quickly bend, then collapse. A strong bridge will hold firm until it shatters, making this amazing sound:

Why the Mission: Impastable?

"They've heard of engineering, but in high school they know almost nothing," says retired professor Michael Karweit. He designed the camp's curriculum, hoping to give promising high schoolers with an interest in engineering a chance to "get dirty, so to speak."

And that's exactly what campers were doing the day before the competition, in the last frantic minutes of the allotted bridge-building time.

"We're barely 1 gram under weight," says Bidyut, feeling more relaxed after a trip to the scale.

Across the workroom, Amelia Hawley, 17, wears bright green goggles. She's been sanding extra epoxy off her bridge. But it, too, came in underweight, so her team is debating some late add-ons to strengthen it. With one problem:

"The epoxy takes 24 hours to dry and cure," Amelia says. "And so we only have not 24 hours before the actual competition."

Despite the deadline, everyone seems to be having fun, tweaking their bridges and their team names. Turns out, teens love their pasta puns:

Before revealing who won, a few pasta bridge-building basics:

First: The engineering equivalent of a safe bet, in this case, was the half wagon wheel. It's strong, with all of its supports focused on the center of the bridge where the weights were hung. Keep in mind, this is a terrible design for an actual bridge that will need to support weight equally across its length.

Second rule of bridge club: Triangles = strength.

Third: Some crafty students glued spaghetti strands together into hollow tubes — for the sections of bridge that would be compressed by the added weight. Because strength, in that case, comes from diameter not solidity, and keeping the tubes hollow saved weight that teams could use elsewhere.

So, whose pasta masterwork ultimately won the day?

Mani's Penne For Your Thoughts? did well, holding 15 pounds. While Hawley's team — Foxy Epoxy — tied for third place with a whopping 26 pounds.

But the winner, from Team A'hunna Key-Lows (A Hundred Kilos, get it?), held a mind-bending (but not bridge-bending) 53 pounds.

Spaghetti and teenagers ... it's amazing what they can do under pressure.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Our next story is about an unusual summer program for high schoolers. It teaches complex engineering concepts using surprisingly simple tools. The biggest challenge for students - build a bridge out of nothing but glue and spaghetti. Here's Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Engineering Innovation is a month-long camp run by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a handful of other cities. Students come from all over the world to do this.

BIDYUT MANI: Ah.

TURNER: Are you kidding me? You're this scared?

MANI: I'm so scared right now.

TURNER: That's Bidyut Mani cringing as his teammates begin adding weight to their spaghetti bridge. It's the final day of camp and they're in a Hopkins auditorium, surrounded by classmates and parents. Mani's on edge because students are graded and those who finish with at least a B average earn three engineering credits. Mani's bridge - named Bridget, naturally - easily holds the minimum six-and-a-half pounds.

MANI: We passed. Oh, man.

(APPLAUSE)

TURNER: The bridges can weigh no more than half a pound and have to be made of spaghetti or other cylindrical pastas, like cappellini or vermicelli. Onstage, teams set their bridges over a 20-inch gap, hang a chain from the middle and begin ever so gently attaching weights until...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Oh.

TURNER: Now, you can tell how well a bridge is built not only by the weight it holds but by how it breaks. A weak bridge bends and then collapses. A strong bridge holds firm until it shatters.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Oh.

TURNER: What's the point of all this?

MICHAEL KARWEIT: They've heard of engineering, but in high school, they know almost nothing.

TURNER: Retired professor Michael Karweit designed the camp's curriculum, hoping to give promising high schoolers their first fun taste of engineering.

KARWEIT: Get dirty so to speak.

TURNER: And that's exactly what campers were doing the day before the competition, in the last frantic minutes of bridge-building time.

MANI: We're barely one gram underweight.

TURNER: That's Bidyut Main again, feeling a little more relaxed after a trip to the scale. If bridges come in too heavy or too tall, they lose points. Across the room, Amelia Hawley wears bright green goggles. She's been sanding extra epoxy off her bridge. But it, too, came in under weight, so her team is debating some late add-ons to strengthen it, with one problem.

AMELIA HAWLEY: The epoxy takes 24 hours to dry and cure, so we only have not 24 hours until the actual competition.

TURNER: Despite the deadline, everyone seems to be having fun, tweaking their bridges and their team name.

What's your team name?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nothing's Impastable (ph).

MANI: Penne For Your Thoughts.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Well, we had one. It was like - it was like, Truss Us, We're Engineers, but apparently that was already taken.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm Never Eating Spaghetti Again.

TURNER: Right, but what's your team name?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm Never Eating Spaghetti Again (laughter).

HAWLEY: Our cheesy bridge name is Foxy Epoxy (laughter).

TURNER: So who won? Well, Mani's Bridget did pretty well, holding 15 pounds. Hawley's team, Foxy Epoxy, tied for third place at a whopping 26 pounds. But this was the winner.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Oh.

TURNER: A supreme shatter after holding 53 pounds. Spaghetti and teenagers - it's amazing what they can do under pressure. Cory Turner, NPR News, Baltimore.

BLOCK: You can see that winning bridge and lots of students using their noodles - sorry - at NPR.org/Ed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.