Students at Vincent Middle School have recently discovered that you can learn a lot from designing and building a pinewood derby race car. And have lots of fun while you are doing it!
Students in Partrice Marbry’s 8th grade pre-AP science class are wrapping up a seven-week STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) project where students did extensive research on the design and construction of derby cars, which included learning about scientific terms such as mass, weight, velocity, gravity, motion, and energy. The students, who worked in groups, also had to complete calculations based on various formulas in order to reach certain conclusions that might impact the design and construction of their car.
The students worked with the school’s Vocational Technology teacher, Ted Gipson, to design blueprints of their cars. During this process the students also learned about the various careers where blueprints are used.
“While they were in the blueprint phase of the project, the students learned about careers such as architects, engineers, automotive manufacturing, and construction, which all use blueprints in the everyday application of the design process,” said Marbry.
Another collaborative part of the project was working with the school’s art department on the aesthetic elements of the cars. Many of the cars were designed around a certain theme, such as a car shaped to look like a pencil. Another car was shaped like a whale, while yet another was shaped like a mouse. One team chose to do a sports themed car, which represented the various sports in which the three students participate.
One large element of the project was a written thesis paper, where the students had to clearly express three factors they believed would increase the speed of their car or affect the motion. Those factors could have included elements such as acceleration, momentum and speed, or friction, air resistance, and gravity, for example.
“They brainstormed and researched all of these various elements,” explained Marbry. “Once they had picked the three topics to investigate, I challenged them to really think about what that would look like. If I am trying to reduce friction, then what do I need to DO in order to reduce it?”
The students had to present their thesis paper to a panel of three adults, who were all knowledgeable about the subject matter. The students had to defend why they chose the three elements they felt would make the greatest impact on their car’s design. They also had to defend the design elements, including why they chose the particular shape of the vehicle or whether they choose to use (or not to use) additional weights to impact the speed of their cars.
“We didn’t use the weights because it might have caused air to get trapped under the car,” explained another group.
After the students had defended their thesis papers, they moved to the most fun part of the project – racing the cars to see how well they performed.
The racing phase showed students whether their theories proved to be true or not. For example, the Captain America car, which used the weights, proved to be one of the fastest cars out of the first group of students to race. Other students learned whether their designs to the actual wooden structure of the car were effective or not. For example, did the whale car, which had weight distributed at the front of the car, out-perform the mouse car with the weight distribution at the back of the car?
The two winning cars from each of the classes who participated eventually faced each other in a showdown race to see which car was the fastest overall. The winner of the fastest car was the Captain America car, followed by the mouse car. Captain America also won first place for design, with the Batman car taking second place. Earning first place honors for creativity was the mouse car, followed by the sports car in second place. The winner for Best All Around was the pencil car.
The students all agreed the project was a fun way to learn the principles of math and science.