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August 11, 2012
Engineering Innovation: Spaghetti Bridge Competition

Engineering Innovation: Spaghetti Bridge Competition

The MCL Bridge Design Company took the stage and stood behind their creation. The bridge was a relatively simple design—not too high, thicker at the top. Matt Bailey, Clara Nelson and Lucy Li (aka “MCL”) grimaced as weights were hung from its decking. Written on the scoreboard was the weight to beat: 30.8 kg (67.7 lbs.).

“Twenty-four kilograms,” the judge announced. Silence. “Thirty kilograms.” “That’s a child!” whispered an audience member. The room held its breath as more weights were loaded on. Finally, “48 kilograms!” declared the judge. Five seconds passed. And then, the inevitable cracking and crashing sound of a half pound of pasta coated in epoxy and 105 pounds of free weights hitting the floor. The crowd erupted.

While the sight of a scoreboard, a cheering crowd, focused competitors, and TV cameras is to be expected on Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus, usually, it means there’s a lacrosse game going on.

But in late July, 120 high school students, accompanied by family, instructors and reporters, filled JHU’s Hodson Hall auditorium for a competition of a very different sort. They were there for the Spaghetti Bridge Contest, the culminating project in Engineering Innovation, a four-week summer program for rising high school juniors and seniors.

Working in groups of threes, the competition gave students the chance to put the engineering and math skills, and theories learned in lectures and labs, to practice.

Run by JHU’s Whiting School of Engineering, Engineering Innovation is offered at Homewood and at sites across the country. Its intent: Give students a taste of college-level engineering early on, and get them interested in studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields when they go to college.

The program has been a terrific success. Since its inception seven years ago, a remarkable 78% of Engineering Innovation’s graduates have gone on to major in STEM fields in college (compared to a national average of just 16%).

MCL went on to win the competition and for Li, a high school senior from China, the victory provided a confirmation for what she’d recently decided. “My parents are both engineers,” she says, “but before this, I didn’t really know what it meant to do engineering.” Though the program was rigorous, she is now sure she wants to study engineering in college—hopefully at Johns Hopkins.


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