Ready to Roll

June 1, 2016
North Bay Biz

Would you rather read a book or build a car?

Say you’re a third grader, sitting in class, and the teacher tells you to open your textbook to the chapter on gravity and the laws of motion. He writes “gravity” on the chalkboard in big, bold letters. You open your book, prop your elbow on the desk and lean your head on the palm of your hand. Yawn. The teacher calls on the girl who sits in the row next to you to start reading from the textbook. Blah, blah, blah. You look at the clock on the wall and count the minutes until recess.

But what if you could design a car, using bottle caps, tape and glue? What if you were challenged to design a fast car, powered by gravity, and Sonoma Raceway officials would be coming to your school to test it in a qualifying round to determine which cars would race at the track on NASCAR weekend? And what if your team’s car actually wins?

Wow. Totally awesome. Definitely.

Last year, Kid Scoop News (a monthly, kid-captivating newspaper-format magazine used by more than 1,000 teachers and 45,000 kids throughout the Bay Area) partnered with Sonoma Raceway to launch the inaugural STEM Gravity Race Car Challenge (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.) This year, the challenge is planned for NASCAR weekend, June 27 and 28.

The idea is to give students a break from textbook learning and let them put a science lesson into motion by experimenting with the same real-world problems engineers and scientists face, using car building and racing as a medium.

“Science seems so disconnected when we teach it in a classroom,” says Vicki Whiting, publisher, editor and founder of Kid Scoop News. “Most children learn best through touching and the hands-on, project-based learning system that’s at the heart of the STEM Gravity Race Car Challenge.”

“The goal is to make it fun and unique and bring the program to life here [at Sonoma Raceway],” adds Gary Phillips, vice president of marketing at Sonoma Raceway.

STEM education and careers

Getting elementary-age students interested in STEM subjects continues to be a challenge for teachers nationwide and in the North Bay. This, despite the fact that the demand for STEM jobs is increasing, says Whiting. Over the past 10 years, growth in STEM jobs was three times as fast as growth in non-STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, economics and statistics administration. To get more young people—particularly girls and minorities—interested in STEM careers, they need to study these subjects in college, which means teachers have to spark and develop their interest early.

But many kids aren’t pursuing STEM subjects in college, says Whiting. “They get discouraged early on, but science is investigative. We can do a lot of fun stuff with that to make learning more connected. The key in teaching is motivation, and reading a chapter is not the most motivating way to learn.”

The Race Car Challenge

The program was launched in January 2014 with an email to targeted Kid Scoop News teachers. Three schools quickly signed up, and the teachers posed this question to students: How do you engineer a car—a fast car—that’s gravity-powered?

That was the challenge for third- to fifth-grade students at three North Bay elementary schools last year. The pilot schools included Meadow Elementary School in Petaluma, Napa Junction Elementary School in American Canyon and Waldo Rohnert Elementary School in Rohnert Park.

Students used items that could easily be found at home such as cardboard, rubber bands and straws. They had to consider the design features of their cars to address efficient aerodynamics, reduce drag and minimize friction. What’s more, they had to look for ways to maximize distance, so the lesson in physics wasn’t lost on them.

Partnering for STEM 

To support participating schools, Kid Scoop News met with teachers to develop learning activities and create educational resources. They also published two STEM education pages in Kid Scoop News to teach concepts of gravity, friction and aerodynamics.  Meanwhile, Sonoma Raceway established race guidelines and specifications for racecars.

Along the way, other local businesses got involved with the project. Friedman’s Home Improvement provided funding and space at its Santa Rosa store for a Saturday Kidsworx event so children could come to build their racecars. The Bay Area Science Festival provided space and publicity for the partners to have another day for children to create cars and test them on the Sonoma Raceway track. And the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County organized the materials and volunteers for the Kidsworx car-making, hands-on science activity.

21st century learning

The challenge offered a practical venue for developing 21st century skills, which are essential to future career success, according to Whiting. Since students worked together in small groups to build a racecar, they learned what it’s like to work on a project as a team. They had to be critical, creative and collaborative thinkers. They had to consider the best design to make their car move faster and what materials would be durable and allow maximum speed.

“By drafting designs, constructing and assembling racecars, the students got an idea of what it means to be mechanical engineers,” says Whiting. “When conducting experiments to discover how well their design worked, they took on the role of scientists, using methods to test hypotheses and record information. Technical adjustments, researching terms and using the right tools to gauge speed and performance introduced students to the world of technology. And collecting, analyzing and interpreting data gave them a context for mathematical careers.”

The best part of the challenge was observing the camaraderie among students, says Stephanie Derby, a fourth grade teacher at Meadow Elementary School in Petaluma, who participated in the challenge with her students as part of an after-school program. “It was so refreshing to watch students talk kid-to-kid, work with different materials, experiment and discover for themselves,” she says. “It was self-directed instead of adult-directed. They were internalizing what was happening and seeing how the mechanics work. When students get to play with a concept, there’s a greater chance they’ll fully comprehend it.”

“The STEM Race Car Challenge was such a memorable experience for our students and teachers last year,” adds Project-Based Learning Coach Lisa Anderson of Napa Junction Elementary School, who helped create the month-long integrated curriculum around the challenge for all fourth grade classrooms. “I give all the credit to our fourth grade teachers, since they were the ones who implemented the project and engaged students in learning the content.”

“By giving students a driving question, it turns the learning over to them and lets students guide where they go. They know what the end game is, and it’s their job to get there. They had to create a list of things that they needed to know to attempt to build the fastest car,” adds Lindsey Wilson, a fourth grade teacher at Napa Junction. “The students researched gravity, force, laws of motion, Isaac Newton and friction and, through their research, designed these amazing little cars.”

Qualifying trials

Sonoma Raceway sent race event staff and a track to each participating school so students could test their cars. The four fastest cars from each school qualified to race at the finals for NASCAR weekend. (This year, the two fastest cars from each school qualified for finals, since there were more participating schools.)

“Prior to the qualifying rounds, our students tested their prototypes, reflected on their observations of their cars’ performance and made alterations to their prototype to enhance the cars,” says Wilson. This part was valuable, she adds, because they continued to work on their cars to make them faster, learning from their mistakes rather than giving up at the first sign of failure.

When Sonoma Raceway and Kid Scoop News visited Napa Junction Elementary School last spring and set up a ramp on the playground, several classes were outside cheering the teams and their cars on. “It was such a powerful event,” recalls Wilson. “The students were so proud of what they’d accomplished, regardless of whether they made it to [the finals at] Sonoma Raceway.”

The qualifying trials were recorded by KQED and aired on “The California Report.”

The two finalists that day—Team Lady Bug and Knight Rider—battled it out. They let their cars roll, and it was a close call. At the last second, Lady Bug squeaked by, edging out Knight Rider.

“We got pretty close to the end, but we didn’t quite make it. But at least we tried our best,” said 11-year-old Logan that day.

As for the lesson in gravity? Mission accomplished. The lesson was learned at each participating school—even for one team that built a car with wheels that didn’t touch the ground, says Whiting, because there’s no comparison between the practical application of trial and error and learning from a textbook.

Race Car finals

On the Saturday of NASCAR weekend at Sonoma Raceway, there were 12 competing teams from the participating schools. And while it’s still generally considered a challenge getting girls interested in science, the tide appears to be turning.

“When we got to the final five, most of the other teams were made up of older students, and we didn’t know if our car was fast enough,” recalls Kylie Mills, who was a third grader at Meadow Elementary School in Petaluma at the time.

The teams continued to race their cars in “heats.” The top four cars at the finals that day included: Speedy Stripes, Speeding Porsches, Little Blobs and Flames.

The winning car? Speedy Stripes. The champs? Three third-grade girls from Meadow Elementary School, who designed their racecar using a block of wood, which they sanded to shape, and wheels they purchased at a craft store. The goal was to make a fast car so they got wheels with bearings, according to Speedy Stripe winners, Stella Conroy and Kylie Mills.

Bianca Conroy (whose sister, Stella, is a twin) knew from experience that a heavier car would give them an advantage. “I’ve raced cars down slopes at my house, so I know that heavier cars go fastest,” she says. “When we weighed our car, we realized we could add weight so we added a metal plate to the underside of the car for speed.”

As for the décor of the winning car, well, they gave it considerable thought. “We wanted it to look like a truck, but also pretty, so we added stripes and red, shiny diamond stickers,” says Conroy.

Future STEM Race Car Challenges

When Kid Scoop News and Sonoma Raceway first launched the STEM Race Car Challenge, there was no guarantee it would take off. But this year, 10 schools signed up for the challenge within the first 24 hours after it was announced, and other schools asked to be put on a waiting list in case a school dropped out.

“There’s a natural connection with kids and race cars,” says Phillips. “We hope the program can be deployed on a wider level and become a long-term vehicle for learning.”

When you see this kind of enthusiasm—see kids light up about learning—it’s tremendously gratifying, says Whiting. “Our task is to engage them, our goal is to offer the challenge throughout the North Bay. We can do that with the generosity of old and new sponsors alike, but we’re limited by budget.”

“I’m glad education is swinging in this direction and opening kids’ minds to possibilities,” says Derby, who led the champs of Speedy Stripes. According to Derby, projects such as the STEM Race Car Challenge are a great learning experience. They get students to think outside the box, she says, build confidence in expressing their thoughts, require them to support their opinions and ideas with concrete evidence and plans, and give them the opportunity to collaborate as a team. “These are key life skills that will benefit all of us. It’s an exciting time in education.”

“Our students loved participating in the challenge. By teaching with a project-based learning model, we’re preparing these students for the world in front of them,” adds Wilson. “They’re learning science and engineering concepts that are quite impressive. More important, they’re learning to be owners of their learning.” The students at Napa Junction Elementary School are fired up for this year’s challenge. “The students we have this year saw the fourth graders doing this project last time, so they were eager to begin.”

As for the champion team of Speedy Stripes on NASCAR weekend last June, it was a unique experience for Kylie Mills. “The best part was when I got to shake the racers’ hands. It was a cool experience,” she says.

Even better, she had the distinctive experience that day of announcing before thousands of NASCAR fans: “Drivers, start your engines!”