Teaching Students To Use Their Noodles : NPR Ed A summer program at Johns Hopkins University puts high schoolers' ingenuity to the test — building bridges out of nothing but spaghetti and glue.
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Teaching Students To Use Their Noodles

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Teaching Students To Use Their Noodles

Teaching Students To Use Their Noodles

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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.

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