Engineering with Kids: Popsicle Sticks, Spaghetti and Marshmallows

Back in March, a few colleagues and I were discussing how to prepare kids for college. With that subject in mind, I wanted to do something fun and meaningful for the kids in our community. So I organized some workshops in my back yard for kids who might be interested in exploring structural engineering — and summer was the perfect time to do it! We had a group of 12 kids, aged 7–11, who signed up and were all set to explore some engineering concepts. It was a learning experience for me, as well!

I knew it was not going to be an easy task to keep all 12 kids interested and occupied unless I figured out some “cool” projects to work on. So I reached out to my colleagues for some different ideas. Knowing my colleagues, I was not surprised to see my mailbox flooded with suggestions! Now it was time to sort through them and figure out which projects we were going to work on. I decided to do a one-hour workshop every week for four weeks. This would mean roughly 12–15 hours of my total time, including preparation (this took most of the time), setup, cleanup and activity time. This was something I could commit to.

In our first class we explored the concept of loads, building codes and the loads a building needs to be designed for. When I asked the kids what loads they thought a building needed to be designed for, I was shocked by the number of answers they came up with! Their excitement and interest completely energized me. And since we live on the West Coast, we spent some more time discussing the importance of seismic loads.

We did the following projects in our workshops:

  1. Understanding strong shapes — We built pyramids and cubes using spaghetti and marshmallows.
  2. Seismic tests — I ordered the Lakeshore Survive the Quake Engineering Kit from Amazon and we used this to build different setups and to test for increasing intensities. This is a relatively inexpensive kit for learning about earthquake simulation and the concepts of building strong structures to sustain earthquake forces.
  3. Building a tower — We used spaghetti sticks and tape to build a tall tower in 20 minutes. Interestingly, after they built the tower, the kids started shaking the tables that they built the towers on to see how long they lasted. It was just amazing to watch them get excited as they figured out how strong their tower was and understood the importance of building safer structures. This exercise also helped me realize the importance of my everyday work at Simpson Strong-Tie and how the work I do can save lives!
  4. Popsicle stick bridge — We used hot glue guns and Popsicle sticks to build some bridges. Then we tested the bridge using pennies, nickels and quarters. This was one of the most exciting projects for the kids. They loved working with hot glue guns and building bridges!

Paper tower to carry a basketball — We used newspaper and tape to build a tower that could hold a basketball.

This was definitely one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences I had for the time and work I put in. I enjoyed the opportunity to teach kids, to watch their excitement and to learn from their inquisitive minds. All the kids loved exploring structural engineering and thought it was more exciting than computers and video games! Both of my kids, who were also part of the group, enjoyed working on these projects.

In conclusion, I loved the experience of volunteering for kids and hope more would do the same. If kids are exposed to different disciplines at a young age they would be more prepared for college. If you are looking to spend some time with your kids and to engage them in engineering, you can easily try any of the activities listed above at your home!

Author: Nellima Tapata

Neelima Tapata is an R&D engineer for the Fastening Systems product division at Simpson Strong-Tie. She works on the development, testing and code approval of fasteners. She joined Simpson Strong-Tie in 2011, bringing 10 years of design experience in multi- and single-family residential structures in cold-formed steel and wood, curtain-wall framing design, steel structures and concrete design. Neelima earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from J.N.T.U in India and her M.S. in civil engineering with a focus on structural engineering from Lamar University. She is a registered Professional Engineer in the State of California.