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Innovative program teaches high school students to think like engineers

No marinara sauce. No meatballs. No garlic bread.

None of the trimmings normally included in the quintessential pasta meal were needed to construct the spaghetti-framed masterpieces built by budding engineers at the annual Spaghetti Bridge event at Cal State Fullerton.

Only epoxy, a calculator, ingenuity and teamwork were needed to create a spaghetti bridge capable of supporting multiple kilograms of weight before crumbling to the ground.

Held annually since 2006, the July 29 competition was the culmination of the four-week Engineering Innovation program for high school students who have an aptitude in math and science and an interest in engineering.

The college-level program is a partnership between CSUF and Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering. Students learn engineering disciplines and test their knowledge by doing hands-on projects.

Each of the six teams of three to five students was tasked with building a bridge spanning 50 centimeters, no taller than 25 centimeters and weighing no more than 250 grams.

Teams had to apply calculations learned over the four weeks of class to determine the accurate balance of compression and tension, enabling the bridge to hold the optimum amount of weight before caving in.

The winning structure — an arch-shaped bridge supported by diagonal and vertical beams — held 9 kilograms, or 19.8 pounds, before collapsing.

The bridge, which took 15 hours to make, was created by the five-person Flying Spaghetti Monster team.

Team members Malia Haynes (Marina High School), Alex Lee (Troy), Caden Oh (Sunny Hills), Jonathan Wu (Portola) and Sebastian Shih (Diamond Bar) used three types of spaghetti to create the winning structure.

Flying Spaghetti Monster experimented with different designs before selecting what was ultimately the winning entry, said Haynes, who attends Marina.

“We lay out all the pieces, started making everything and then find out that our design wouldn’t work,” Haynes said. “So, we had to start from scratch, so that in itself was super stressful. I don’t think we felt we were going to win.”

The team used a simulator provided by Johns Hopkins allowing them to input data for determining which pieces created tension and which ones created compression.

“At first, our teacher said the bridge wasn’t going to work, so we had to go back, scrap the idea and try to make a new design,” Oh said. “So, we collectively pitched in and came up with a new design.”

All agreed that teamwork was one of the keys to winning.

“Our teacher told us we were like a factory,” Lee said. “He could tell how efficient we were. Everyone played a part in helping us win.”

The competition was being held for the first time in three years after the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation in 2020 and 2021.

The all-time record for the contest took place in 2018 at CSUF when a team of high school students built a spaghetti bridge that held 209 pounds.

“It’s great to feel that we have bright future engineers here, and I am able to witness the very start of their future careers,” said Sanju Oh, associate dean for CSUF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science.

The students met from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday throughout the four weeks of the program and earned three college credits from Johns Hopkins.

Students are taught to think like engineers, attending college-level lectures, testing theories and solving problems.

“It was an overall great course,” Wu said. “We were able to learn a lot and discover the different aspects of engineering.”

Students also completed lab activities in robotics and electrical, computer, mechanical, civil and chemical engineering.

“They all want to go into engineering, but they don’t know which branch,” said teaching fellow John Kim, a high school teacher and former engineer. “So, they have this as an introductory course to help them figure out what branch of engineering they would like to pursue.”

Southern California Edison supported seven student scholarships for the program.

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