Behrend youth outreach program explores ‘pasta math’

A female student looks closely at a bridge she built with spaghetti noodles.

A workshop at Penn State Behrend's Math Options Career Day challenged students to build a bridge with spaghetti noodles.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — Casey Hedlund’s math workshop doesn’t require a textbook. She teaches with pasta.

Hedlund, a materials engineer at Parker LORD Corporation, led a session at Penn State Behrend’s Math Options Career Day, which brought nearly 180 middle-schoolers to Behrend on May 10. She helped the students build model bridges, using spaghetti noodles, glue and tape. Then they tested the strength of each bridge, dropping quarters into a cup hung from the base.

“It’s fun, watching them get into it,” Hedlund said. “It can get competitive.”

The students gathered around the next bridge. Globs of hot glue held the joints together.

“I didn’t think it would work,” Avery Benson, of Conneaut Lake Middle School, said of her team’s design. “We had a lot of problems.”

As the quarters dropped in — 160, 165, 170 — the bridge sagged but didn’t break. Benson started to feel more confident.

“We need to display this,” she said.

Ryan Mumau, a math teacher at Cambridge Springs Jr.-Sr. High School, watched another quarter drop in. He saw a lot of value in the Math Options program, which included hands-on workshops, a STEM activity fair and a panel discussion with new Behrend graduates.

“This introduces them to different careers that they might not have ever heard about,” Mumau said. “The keynote speakers, the hands-on activities, and the career fair are fun, interactive ways to show how math and science are used in different areas, and not just in teaching.”

The Math Options program began as an outreach day targeted to girls – an effort to balance the workforce in STEM fields, where women often are underrepresented. Now, the program is open to students of any gender. The goal of the day, said Melanie Ford, director of Youth Education Outreach at Behrend, is to stretch minds and show the “why” behind math skills.

“We really try to encourage students to continue to take math and science courses in high school,” Ford said. “That way, their options aren’t limited later.

“It’s important to engage them at this age,” she said.

Behrend faculty members led several of the workshops. Volunteers from the college’s corporate partners, including Parker LORD, Wabtec, National Fuel Gas and Erie Insurance, led others.

Helen Gitmez, technical director at Wabtec, taught the physics of roller coasters. The students in her workshop taped foam pipe insulators to the walls of a classroom in Burke Center. After adding twists, loops and even a few jumps, they rolled marbles through the makeshift tracks, trying to land them in a paper cup at the bottom.

Every few minutes, a marble bounced out or rolled off a track’s edge. Gitmez encouraged the girls to try again.

“I hate to see people give up and limit themselves when there is so much opportunity,” she said. “Hopefully, this shows students that math and engineering can be fun. It’s not just equations and math problems. It’s a hands-on field.

“This is really what it is like for us,” she said. “Sometimes we even sit on the floor and tape things to walls.”