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Future Engineers Use Their Noodles to Build Bridges from Spaghetti

High school students compete in Johns Hopkins University’s annual spaghetti bridge contesJuly 18, 2013

Office: 443-287-9960
Cell: 443-547-8805

Bridges are typically made of steel and stone but next Friday hundreds of high school students will attempt to make them from nothing but pasta and epoxy as part of The Johns Hopkins University’s annual edge-of-your-seat spaghetti bridge contest.

It’s suspenseful and nervewracking as students who’ve spent days designing and building bridges put their brittle creations to the test, gradually adding weight, kilo by kilo. Prizes and bragging rights go to the bridges that support the most weight – the record stands at 132 pounds.

As family and friends cheer them on, 115 students from 21 states and eight countries will compete at 10 a.m. July 26 in Hodson Hall, Room 110, on the university’s Homewood campus, 3400 N. Charles St., Baltimore. On that morning, several hundred additional students will compete in smaller contests at other sites in Maryland and across the country.

“It’s tense and exciting and it’s fun because the kids are proud of themselves – as they should be,” said Christine Newman, assistant dean for engineering education outreach in the university’s Whiting School of Engineering, describing the moment when a bridge shatters, and the kids shriek as it crumbles and splinters.

The event caps the university’s Engineering Innovation summer program for young people likely to become the next generation of scientists and engineers. Over four weeks the students get a hands-on taste of everything from robotics to civil engineering and learn to puzzle through real-world problems just like an engineer.

More than 80 percent of those that complete the program go on to pursue careers in science and engineering. The program is a diverse one. Since it started in 2006, attendees have been 32 percent girls, 16 percent African American and 17 percent Latino/Hispanic.

“Our course has proven effective in getting young people interested in and excited about STEM fields,” Newman said.

Engineering Innovation began as an off-shoot from Michael Karweit’s freshman course at Johns Hopkins for undecided engineering majors called “What is Engineering?” He designed it to give students an honest look at a field where devising creative solutions to dilemmas is the name of the game.

“I wanted to introduce students to how engineers think,” said Karweit, a professor of chemical and bimolecular engineering in the Whiting School. “The joy of engineering is there is never just one correct answer. “

Corporate sponsors cover tuition for low-income students, including some from Baltimore. Through a pilot program this year called “Engineering Fundamentals,” a dozen of those local students started two weeks early, using the extra time to bone up on math and science basics and study skills.

“We’re trying to get these kids to build their confidence and potential for success,” said Engineering Innovation Director Karen Borgsmiller.

Recently on the Baltimore campus Engineering Innovation students spread out along a quad trying to measure the distance from one lofty campus spire to another using nothing but a yardstick and a length of string. One of them was Oliver Mahoro, 18, a senior at Baltimore’s Academy for College and Career Exploration who dreams of attending Stanford University to become a petroleum engineer.

Mahoro is thrilled to spend the summer challenging himself alongside other smart, motivated young people.

“It gives me an opportunity to fully challenge myself in ways high school doesn’t,” he said. “Some people think summer is about sitting around outside or going to the beach. This has been the coolest summer I’ve ever known.”

Other spaghetti bridge contests July 26: 10:30 a.m. at Tuscarora High School, 5312 Ballenger Creek Pike, Frederick, Md.; 10 a.m. at California Lutheran University, Swenson Hall, 60 W. Olsen Rd, Thousand Oaks, Calif.; 9 a.m. at SciTech High School, 215 Market St., Harrisburg, Pa.; 11 a.m. at CSU Fullerton, Kinesiology and Health Science 199, 800 N. State College Blvd, Fullerton, Calif.; 10:30 a.m. at Montgomery County Community College, College Hall 151, 340 DeKalb Pike, Blue Bell, Pa.; 10 a.m. at University of the District of Columbia, Building 42 Room 112B, 4200 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. and 10:30 a.m. at Johns Hopkins Montgomery County Campus, Gilchrist Hall, 9601 Medical Center Drive, Rockville, Md.

To learn more about Engineering Innovation or the spaghetti bridge contest, contact Jill Rosen at 443-287-9960 (office), 443-547-8805 (cell) or jrosen@jhu.edu.


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