Why Did Waldorf Middle School Students Beat Hopkins Engineers at Their Own Game?

On Wednesday February 19, 2014 a group of 4 middle school girls from the Waldorf School of Baltimore earned an honor they will never forget. After besting seven middle school teams at designing a structure made entirely of marshmallows and spaghetti, they topped that achievement by winning First Place against Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering students and alumni.

This contest is an annual kickoff to celebrate National Engineer Week, and helps to promote STEM education and careers. It is called the Tower of Power in Half an Hour. The challenge is to build the highest tower of spaghetti and marshmallows that remains standing throughout the judging period, usually at least fifteen minutes. This year 15 teams competed, using 1 bag of marshmallows and 1 box of spaghetti each.

Rachel Hopson, (8th), Rachael Stetina (7th), and Fallon Gustin (6th), knew they were going, they had built a tower already that garnered them the invitation. Then they learned the competitors would have a fourth team member, and invited a friend, Rachael Devecka (7th) to join at the last minute. This group had never practiced all together, but they remained excited and unconcerned. A further surprise came when they learned the number of marshmallows they were to receive was half the number they had previously been allowed. It was no problem. They switched to plan B. They are used to working together. They do it every day, in music, in Eurythmy, in acting, in science, and in math.

The room they were in together was loud. Everyone talking or shouting directions, music blaring, the remaining time being called over a loudspeaker. Despite the fact that one team member is deaf and uses in implant in only one ear that provides less-than-perfect hearing in such an environment, the team calmly and flawlessly rose to the challenge as their tower rose quickly above all the others. And it stayed there.

With one minute left on the clock they had to switch to plan C as the marshmallow deficit rendered the original concept even less sturdy than anticipated. With excited parents and onlookers shouting advice and encouragement, the girls smiled, and simply went their own way. Seamlessly, no fuss, no arguing about one idea over another. They worked together as a beautifully choreographed dance, and won.

Now this may sound like child’s play, but when you stop to think that they topped the engineering students from one of our country’s great engineering and science institutions you realize there is more to it than that. In an era when so many of our current and future careers rely so heavily on science and math, when STEM is the catchphrase of the moment, when everyone seems to be scratching their heads to come up with ways to engage our children, especially our girls, in these very subjects, it is indeed something to know that Waldorf achieves these enviable outcomes. And it is done without stress, without untimely pushiness, without diminishing the importance of all the subjects that are taught in the same kind of cooperative dance the middle school participants illustrated in their winning teamwork.

And if it still reminds you of child’s play, there is a good reason. The basis for science, cooperation, communication, flexible thinking, creativity, risk-taking and so many of the skills needed in today’s world and illustrated in this design contest are exactly what is found in free play. There is no better way to achieve these goals. And there is no better school to allow these attributes to flourish than the Waldorf School of Baltimore.

At Waldorf, high honors and student achievements don’t make the big waves. It is a thing that happens so often, with or without the public notice. But I think word about these girls’ science achievement should spread. And so should word about the school that got them there.

Carol Devecka