October 20, 2021

Kids learn innovation in new lab

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Willa Olshan works in the final seconds to secure her marshmallow to the top of a a structure made out of string, tape, and spaghetti. Fourth graders at Smith Elementary School were participating in a marshmallow challenge in the Innovation Lab.

The F.E. Smith Elementary School students were given their mission.

In 18 minutes, build the tallest freestanding structure, using only the supplies they were given — 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti and short pieces of string and tape — that will hold a marshmallow on top.

“Oh my God, that is going to be so much fun!” one student shouted out.

However, the group of 11 fourth- through sixth-graders were not told those were the only supplies they would get before the countdown clock began.

Everything was hidden in a brown paper bag.

Once three teams were formed, Annette Herbert, Smith School librarian, began the countdown.


A member from each team scurried for a pair of scissors.


The teams huddled around their bag of supplies, positioned to strike like cobras.


The clock began and the teams emptied their bags.

Some students instantly had an idea, while others tried to wrap their brain around how to build a free standing structure with spaghetti.

“It is all about problem solving, thinking through challenges and teamwork,” Herbert said about the school’s Innovation Lab that fourth- through sixth-grade students can sign up to participate in every Friday morning.

The Innovation Labs, also known as “Makerspaces,” have become more popular in school libraries in the past year, Herbert said.

Students are able to gain skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through getting to build objects with tools like K’Nex — a construction toy — and dominos.

They learn to think critically with games like chess and checkers. They even get to learn coding using laptop and desktop computers.

And every now and then, they may get to participate in a group competition, like the marshmallow challenge.

With 12 minutes remaining, the groups of students were huddled around their preliminary designs — bundles of spaghetti taped and tied together — focused on how to keep them from falling.

“Kids want to build and try and do new things,” Herbert said. “It is a lot of fun.”

She learned of the Innovation Lab through a workshop she attended on the topic and visited the lab Parker Elementary School has had for about a year. Smith Elementary School began its own lab at the end of October after receiving a $485 grant Herbert applied for from the Cortland Public Education Foundation.

The lab is only held once a week, on Friday mornings, as the room housing it is used for other purposes week-long.

Herbert said she would like the lab to eventually have its own permanent space.

“It is nice to see the kids in a relaxed atmosphere,” she said.

“Seven minutes left!” a student cried out.

Each team had similar ideas of bundling the spaghetti together and building it up with the string and tape. However, they were struggling to develop a fixture to hold it in place.

One team tried to tie its structure down with string, but that did not work. Another broke the spaghetti into smaller pieces to create support beams.
That also did not work.

The third team, however, used a mound of tape at the base of their structure that showed potential as the spaghetti did not instantly fall over.
With a minute left, the teams scrambled to come up with a solution to their falling spaghetti towers.

All of their tape and string was used up. As a last minute compromise the teams decreased the height of their structure with the hope of making the structure more stable and gaining needed supplies.

Herbert began the final countdown.


Last-second ideas were thrown at the structures.


Only one was free standing with a marshmallow on top, but began to lean.


The team with the standing structure cheered in victory. But the structure teased of potential failure, leaning at an uncomfortable angle.

Herbert quickly measured it standing at 18 inches tall, declaring the team victorious, seconds before the spaghetti tower succumbed to its top-heavy design.

“I loved this,” said fourth-grade Carter Urtz, who was part of the winning team. “I like making things and making inventions.”

For many of the students, it was their first time participating in the lab. And even though only one team won, none appeared to leave in disappointment.

“I liked it,” said fourth-grader Tyler Thomas. “I enjoyed the teamwork and problem solving. I would love to come back.”