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At Moss Hollow, a tasty start to a space race

MARKHAM, VA - JULY 16: Campers from the Boxwood cabins work together to build marshmallow and spaghetti towers during a NASA-sponsored STEM exercise at Camp Moss Hollow. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The way Darrian Loganexplained it to the 20 or so 7- to 11-year-old girls seated around four tables in a summer camp dining hall, the future of American space travel rested on their little shoulders.

“NASA gave us a little project to do,” Darrian said. “In a few years, they need people like you ladies to build rockets for them.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Then he and his fellow Camp Moss Hollow staffer Evan Simmons put a bowl of marshmallows and a pile of uncooked spaghetti at each table.

The link to rockets may not have been obvious, but this was part of a new class at Moss Hollow. It’s part of an effort by NASA’s education office to teach STEM concepts — science, technology, engineering and math — in interesting ways. Earlier this year, representatives from the space agency taught the curriculum to camp staffers. Other lessons include making paper airplanes and building tiny cardboard cars propelled by balloons.

This afternoon’s assignment: the Leaning Tower of Pasta. The girls of the Boxwood cabins had to work in teams to design and construct spaghetti-marshmallow towers capable of holding a Ping-Pong ball. If the Ping-Pong ball was safely cradled, a highlighter and then a pair of scissors would be added to see if the towers could stand the strain.

“And, yes, you can eat the marshmallows,” Darrian said. “At the end of the exercise.”

I don’t know what motivates NASA engineers, but marshmallows seem to work with 7-year-old girls.

“Let’s make a castle,” one camper shouted.

“Who wants to make a rectangle?” asked another.

“How many corners does a rectangle have?” asked counselor Rani Lewinson.

The girls from her cabin — Boxwood 3 — decided that a rectangle has four sides and proceeded to sketch out their design on construction paper. It was a basic cube, with a marshmallow at each corner and spaghetti struts in between.

The girls of Boxwood 1 went for something more pyramidal in shape. The girls from Boxwood 4 had an organic shape, semi-pentagonal. It looked a bit like a model of a newly discovered molecule: marshmallonium, perhaps.

Boxwood 2 started out with a wall — tall and narrowly horizontal — until the girls realized it wouldn’t stand up on its own and disassembled it to make something a little more sturdy.

Marshmallows were precious — there was a finite supply — but the spaghetti seemed endless. A lot of measure-once-and-cut-twice was going on as lengths of pasta were snapped in half or quartered, only to discover that they were now too small.

The girls had 12 minutes to construct their towers. When they were done, they admired their sticky handiwork. None of the creations were particularly soaring. Saturn V’s they were not. But they didn’t have to be graceful. They only had to work.

The girls crowded around each table in turn, watching as the towers were put to the test. One girl from each group was selected to place the items. When a Ping-Pong ball rolled off, one girl said, “Just stick it on top!”

In the end, every tower supported a Ping-Pong ball. And a highlighter. The scissors were tougher, and at least one tower did a slow rotation.

Darrian asked the girls whether they had names for their towers. One youngster answered with what sounded like “Sky Tower,” a proud name indeed. Then I remembered that she had spelled her name for me: S, K, Y, E. Skye.

She’d named the tower after herself.

Because these marshmallows had been used as building materials, they were deemed unsuitable for human consumption. A new bag was produced and its contents distributed among the campers. No rocket engine ever tasted as sweet.

Put us in orbit

By giving to Moss Hollow now you can supercharge your donation. A donor who wishes to remain anonymous is matching all gifts made between now and the campaign’s end, Aug. 2, up to a total of $100,000.

Also, Clyde’s restaurant group is offering another incentive: If you donate between $150 and $249 from now to the end of the campaign, you will receive a $25 gift certificate for Clyde’s. Donate $250 or more and Clyde’s will give you one for $50. (Certificates will be sent in September.)

To donate, simply go to and click where it says “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15251-0045.

Thank you.

For previous columns, go to


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