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Charlotte students’ engineering lesson ... with pasta and marshmallows

Irwin Academic Center students had a fall-back plan if the towers they built Tuesday morning as part of an engineering exercise failed.

They could always eat them.

But nearly all the pasta-and-marshmallow structures built by the fourth- and fifth-graders as part of a Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) exercise passed the test given by engineer Scott Mawhinney.

Mawhinney, from the engineering firm Areva Inc., visited the uptown elementary school for a hands-on lesson in concepts such as tension, horizontal braces and compression.

“Books are great, but this is the way to teach,” Irwin Academic Center Principal Jo Shirley said, as she watched Mawhinney keep about 50 students busy with the hour-long project in the school’s gymnasium. “This is real-world education.”

So fifth-grade teachers Meg Shuman and Laura Courtright helped their students follow a series of steps outlined by Mawhinney. The young engineers used marshmallows to connect strands of pasta, gradually adding side and “X” supports.

Mawhinney advised the students to push down on their structures, to see what happens.

“That is a compression test,” he told them.

“My hands are getting pretty sticky,” 10-year-old Kayla Myers said, as she adjusted her marshmallows.

Mawhinney said he developed the lesson plan years ago when his now-grown sons were in school. He got the idea from the Science Olympiad and adapted it.

“Typically, 80 percent of students have a model that works,” he said. “This is the fifth time I’ve done this program in schools around here, and most of the students have no problem with it.”

Ananya Garg, 10, said the key “was getting the right length of pasta.”

“Having delicate hands helps,” added 10-year-old Hailey McNannen.

Shuman said a memo from CMS curriculum specialists suggested Mawhinney as a good source for a special STEM program.

“He’s the expert,” Shuman said. “It’s his job to build buildings. Who else could be better at this?”

Lyttle: 704-358-6107; Twitter: @slyttle
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