Project bridges science gap

After-school program gives pupils a hands-on lesson in engineering

February 18, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Using a wooden stick, Lea Ham dragged a flatbed truck across a bridge built of uncooked spaghetti.

Then it was Kaleb Anderson's turn. He added more weight to the flatbed and began moving it across the bridge. When the model truck reached the halfway point, the bridge cracked and then splintered into pieces that fell into a bin underneath.

"It's very interesting to build a bridge out of spaghetti," said Brittany Riley, an 8-year-old third-grader. "But the best part is when a bridge breaks and the pieces fly everywhere."

As Dave Mentzer, 50, of Havre de Grace picked up the broken pieces, he said, "We tested the bridges before today. Since they are just made of spaghetti, we knew that some of them would break when we added weight."

The activity was one of several experiments offered to students as part of an after-school science program started at Darlington Elementary School last fall by Mentzer and Mark Daghir, who are engineers.

Darlington Science, a PTA- sponsored activity, was created for third- through fifth-graders and is held at the school once or twice a month, from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The events are free, though donations are requested. Activities range from experiments in magnetism and electricity, to astronomy and field trips to the Conowingo Dam and a science fair in Baltimore.

The program was started to give students opportunities to build things, work with their hands and learn basic science theory, Mentzer said.

"Kids love hands-on activities," he said. "We've found that the children who lose attention in class are the ones who do well with us."

Daghir, a stay-at-home father, said he started the program to enhance what his children were learning in the classroom. While waiting with his children at the bus stop, he and two other fathers talked about school and what their children were doing in the classroom.

"I was disappointed with the math and science curriculum being offered in the county," said Daghir, who earned a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and a master's degree from the University of Maryland, College Park. "When I was in school, there was a real emphasis on science. My children rarely bring home any science homework, and they don't get a chance to do a lot of hands-on science activities."

Contributing the startup costs of $1,300, the two engineers researched possible activities and came up with nine projects.

"We met with the principal and asked her what the curriculum included," said Daghir. "Then, using that information, we found kitchen science experiments and projects we could do with the children."

Once they had the program outline completed, they sent letters to the parents of Darlington's pupils, expecting about a dozen or so responses. They were surprised when about 30 students enrolled in the program.

The spring session kicked off with the bridge project, called Spaghetti Span, which included building a simple bridge. Students created their bridge designs using a computer software program called West Point Bridge Designer 2007, created by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said Mentzer.

Although West Point offers a bridge-building contest using the program, the Darlington students were too young to participate in that. Instead, Mentzer and Daghir tapered the program to make it appropriate for younger children.

Using photos that Daghir took of several bridges while kayaking, the pupils, working in groups of four or five, built seven structures with dry pasta and hot glue that were modeled after real bridges in Havre de Grace, he said.

Once the bridges were complete, the pupils checked them for structural failure.

To test the bridges, Daghir and Mentzer put weights on the truck, and when all of those weights were added, they had the children place smaller weights into a cup hanging from the bottom of the bridge.

Although the pupils weren't certain of the durability of the bridges, they found the idea of the bridge breaking exciting, said Madison Ruleman-Tolson, 8.

"When I heard we were making the bridges out of spaghetti, I thought that there was no way our bridge would hold up," said the third-grader. "But it's all for fun. When the bridges break, it's really neat."

However, the bridge Madison helped create, a replica of the Warren through truss in Havre de Grace, didn't break. It held 14 pounds of added weight.

Although the project was difficult, it was fun, said Jacob Hensley, 10.

"Science is fun, doing the experiments and everything," said Jacob. "Making the bridges was confusing at times, but I'm learning stuff. When I do science in my class, it's easier now."

Lynsey Blackburn, 10, saw the program as a chance to build her science knowledge. "I used to think that I was bad at science," said the fifth-grader. "Mainly because I didn't know all the gigantic words. Now I know about half of them, and science isn't so hard anymore."

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