Pasta and Glue Motivate, Inspire Young Engineers

The engineering challenge offered to Topeka Collegiate’s fifth grade science students: Build the strongest bridge possible using only store-bought pasta and Elmer’s glue. Thus begins a cycle of research, design, prototype, test, and redesign, punctuated by trips to the grocery store pasta aisle. “It’s harder than it looks,” laughs science teacher Mary Kate Baldwin, “because when the glue dries, it shrinks and the pasta breaks.”

Students discover that not all pasta is created equal. “Lasagna is strong,” budding engineer Adrianne explains, “but not that strong considering its weight. You don’t want to add weight where it won’t help.” For her, rigatoni is a better choice. Until she discovers that spaghetti threaded through hollow bucatini is stronger than either by itself. After all her strategic decisions, Adrianne can’t resist adorning her bridge with some bow tie pasta.

Then it’s on to the competition, where local engineers suspend each bridge between two tables, attaching a bucket below. Cups of sand are poured into the bucket to measure the bridge’s capacity; a calculation comparing the weight of the bridge to the weight of the sand at failure determines the winner.

One by one the bridges break—after three, five, or ten cups of sand. Adrianne’s entry withstands a remarkable 31 cups before failing, surprising even its designer.

Ms. Baldwin is proud of her students. “They’ve demonstrated that they’re innovators and critical thinkers,” she says. “This contest isn’t required, so they’ve also shown they’re self-motivated and well on their way to being lifelong learners.” And perhaps lifelong pasta lovers.

Does your school do something similar?

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