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Learning through inquiry at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES

Dry spaghetti is scattered across the floor of a middle school classroom at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES. Students’ hands are dotted with glue. Compass Program STEM Coordinator Jennifer Wall describes the scene as “organized chaos.” Many of the program’s seventh- and eighth-grade students are testing different glue types and brainstorming best practices for the construction of their pasta bridge.

This is project-based learning. Commonly referred to as PBL, it is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.

There are nearly 30 middle school students in the Compass Program and they have been divided into four groups, based upon their individual interests. Each group has been tasked with a unique challenge including the following:

1. Challenge: Pasta Bridge
Driving Question: Which spaghetti bridge can hold the most weight?

2. Challenge: Pumpkin Tower
Driving Question: How can relatively weak materials be made strong enough to support weight?

3. Challenge: Marble Roller Coaster
Driving Question: How do you design a marble roller coaster, with at least two turns, that keeps the marble on track?

4. Challenge: Robotics
Driving Question: Can you build and program a LEGO robotics EV3 to travel exactly 10 feet and retrieve a block to take back to the starting point?

Each challenge requires students to use math and science to test and determine solutions.

“These projects are all about trial and error,” said Wall. “Through hands-on learning, students must communicate and collaborate with their peers in order to accomplish their goal. They’re gaining skills that will be used throughout their life.”  

Students spend 2-3 hours on their challenges each week.

Wall anticipates students will complete their projects toward the end of November.

“Students enjoy the competition aspect of these projects. We’ll soon see which spaghetti bridge, newspaper-constructed tower, and paper towel roll roller coaster is the strongest -- and it will be a lot of fun -- and worth the mess.”

To learn more about Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES’ Compass Program, please contact Principal Drew Yakawiak at






Brian K. Hartwell, Ed.D.
District Superintendent of Schools

1879 West Genesee Street Rd.
Auburn, NY 13021
Phone: (315) 253-0361

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