Armed with spaghetti, marshmallows and their imaginations, the fifth-graders of Friendship Valley Elementary School turned their attention to bridging a 12-inch gap between two desks.
They puzzled over pieces of pasta, trying to figure out the right balance to ensure stability. They created triangles of noodles held together by large marshmallow cornerstones. And, time and again, they fretted over the sections that sagged when they removed their supporting - and increasingly sticky - hands.
Their efforts came in response to a challenge from electrical engineer Jim Arnett of Northrop Grumman and were part of his company's mission to inspire a new generation of engineers and other technical professionals. Representatives from the company have sponsored school visits at every level for nearly 20 years, said Jack Martin Jr., director of public relations for Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems.
"We're going to face a really critical shortage of engineers in the future," Arnett said, adding that other countries, such as China and Japan, are "way ahead" in terms of the percentage of students in engineering or other technical fields. "The people who are going to be the technical professionals in the future are the kids now."
Which is why, on Tuesday, Arnett paid another visit to Friendship Valley. Many of the students had seen him as fourth-graders, when they were commissioned to build a tower using similarly unusual materials. But now, as older and wiser fifth-graders, Arnett said, their job was designed to be more difficult: Build a bridge sturdy enough to handle a small, dangling cup filled with pennies. The stronger the structure, the more pennies it should hold.
"The idea is for a team to work together, to take an idea and make things happen - because that's what engineers do," Arnett told the fifth-graders.
They set to work, taking bunches of spaghetti and squishy handfuls of marshmallows to their respective stations.
"Don't use the big marshmallows," Madi Reilly, 11, said to teammate Michael Wack, also 11, as he inserted spaghetti into one of the jumbo-size ones, creating a noodle pyramid whose corners consisted of the smaller-size white confection. "They'll weigh it down."
"I have to," Michael replied.
While he was the chief architect, Michael was open to suggestions from his classmates: Madi had proposed using two pieces of spaghetti between marshmallows, instead of one, to strengthen the bridge.
Arnett walked by and surveyed their work.
"Lots of good triangles there," he said.
"Triangles are good," Madi said, echoing his earlier advice about how that shape can hold more weight than rectangles, which can collapse more easily.
Some of their peers at another pair of desks were further along, with a spaghetti bridge spanning the foot of space. Small triangles anchored the bridge's ends to the tables, and a line of triangles dangled between them.
"Should we just try putting it on to see if it works?" Rebecca Manelli, 11, asked her classmates, referring to the cup and pennies meant to test the bridges' strength.
"Not yet," Trey Baker, 11, answered.
Marsha Lively, one of the fifth-grade teachers, stopped to examine their creation.
"Have you measured your desks? You're sure it's 12 inches?" Lively asked.
"Yes," said Rebecca, Trey and partners Kalvin Koetting, 10, and Julie Nool, 11.
Did their bridge meet all the requirements?
"Yes," they said again.
"Guard it," Lively said, before moving on.
Trey said he originally thought it would be impossible to create a bridge that would hold up - and was surprised at their success.
Their bridge withstood 12 pennies, before collapsing at an unlucky 13 coins in the cup.
"Like any good engineer, you'll go back and change the design a little bit," Arnett said.
Later, with some improvements and spaghetti reinforcements, their record rose to 24.
Julie and Rebecca said they could be interested in engineering careers.
"It looks fun," Julie said.
Madi agreed, but added that the idea of building a Bay Bridge of her own seemed "kind of scary."
While Lively said she does think the program can spark an interest in those kinds of careers, she saw other lessons in the exercise.
"I hope they learn the idea of working together," Lively said, as well as problem-solving. "Kids need to be taught that."
They also could learn to take other people's input and to adjust their opinions as they work, she added.
And beyond that, she hoped that the bridge building helped inspire their creativeness, Lively said. "That goes into every occupation."