Spaghetti Engineering: Challenges for Pennies
We here at Shoestring Science love being able to challenge learners’ minds using nothing but, well, a shoestring budget and a lot of creativity. One of my favorite engineering challenges to set learners on is the Spaghetti Bridge, and I love how many variations you can use to keep it fresh for both learners and educators.
I like to use Spaghetti Bridge activities as a way to introduce learners to the spirit of the engineering design process: they ask a question, imagine a solution, plan their solution, create and test it, and then make improvements until they are satisfied. Even without listing the steps for them, learners will often intuitively follow this pattern!
For standard challenges, I will have the learners participate in groups of two or three, since once you get bigger than that there’s trouble making sure everyone gets to play a part in the build. Each group is given twenty spaghetti noodles and a foot (or two) of masking tape. Their challenge: to bridge a 12-inch gap between two tables using only the supplies given to them. Other constraints can include not being able to tape the bridge to the table or requiring the addition of a cup on a string so that the bridge’s strength can be measured with pennies for weights. The learners are given an arbitrary amount of time (it can be done in ten minutes or half an hour, it’s up to you!) to finish testing their bridges, and they can test, improve, and rebuild any number of times during that time period. They can even get supply refills if they can demonstrate a clear plan for improvement and argue their case with the engineering project lead (aka: the educator).
And voila! For half an hour and pennies per student, you have an engineering challenge which can be referenced back to the Engineering Design Process, can use several methods of measurement, and asks learners to practice collaboration, communication, and materials use. There’s tons of variations on this activity, too, so you can explore what works best for your needs and your learners!