South County Beat

Getting kids excited about engineering, one gumdrop bridge at a time

clambert@thetribunenews.comFebruary 18, 2014 

As two Cal Poly students passed out small plastic bags filled with toothpicks and Dots gumdrop candies, a few fourth-graders in a class at Shell Beach Elementary School immediately wanted to know: Could they eat them?

“No eating the gumdrops, first of all,” said third-year civil engineering student Julie Hendrick.

Hendrick and Cal Poly environmental engineering student Ashley Katchadourian, both members of the Society of Women Engineers, then outlined the challenge: to build a bridge that would hold considerable weight using as few of the toothpicks and gumdrops as possible.

“You have to be very strategic in what you use,” Katchadourian said. “But it’s OK to fail — learn from your mistakes.”

This week, members of the Society of Women Engineers are visiting fourth-grade classrooms in Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria. The activities are aimed at sparking an early interest in science, technology, math and all things related to engineering.

Cal Poly has one of the largest engineering colleges on the West Coast, with more than 5,640 students in fall 2013. Of them, about 1,080, or 19.3 percent, are women, according to university officials.

“It’s to get them aware of engineering and how much fun it is and what you can do,” Hendrick said of the sessions, adding, “Two of those girls were really excited in there. That’s what I like to see.”

After receiving their assignments, the Shell Beach fourth-graders worked in groups to build a bridge, with some first drawing a design on paper.

“It’s based on the Golden Gate Bridge,” Riley Prickett, 9, explained. “I’m learning a lot about architecture, because I really want to be an architect when I grow up.”

Another group stuck multiple toothpicks into their gumdrops.

“That’s a good idea,” Katchadourian said. “It makes it really strong, but maybe it’s not the best way to use all your materials?”

Two groups built bridges that withstood 347 grams of weight. Other bridges held 86 to 209 grams.

“If you want your bridge to be strong, you want your gumdrops and toothpicks to be tight together,” Joe McDonough, 9, said when the Cal Poly students asked what the fourth-graders had learned.

Their teacher, Steve Sharp, said the session gave his students a chance to put “project-based learning” into action by working in groups to solve a problem.

“I just like their enthusiasm,” he said. “It’s great.”

The Cal Poly students said they were surprised by the complexity of the bridge designs.

“I expected them to be simpler,” Katchadourian said. “They also comprehended the rules about being efficient with the resources more than I expected.”

For more information about the Society of Women Engineers, go to

Cynthia Lambert and Gayle Cuddy write the South County Beat column on alternating Wednesdays. Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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