Engineering Soapbox Cars—and Gearing Up for the Race!
By Glenna Broaddus
“The soapbox car can’t make 90-degree turns, so we won’t crash,” says soapbox car builder Kyree, a 7th grader at John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School taking part in City Schools’ 2011 Grand Prix of Summer Learning. “If the car can’t turn much, it will go straighter, and that means the soapbox car will go faster downhill, too.” His fellow engineers, Justin and Carlos, both 6th graders, nod in agreement as the three work on the pulley system for the car’s navigation.
Over on the other team, car driver and 6th grader, Niko, explains how he discovered that both teams forgot to put a stabilizing platform on the soapbox car rear axles. To fix this, they remove the rear axles, attach the platform and reassemble the axle, losing precious design time. “But on the plus side,” Niko says, “we needed to learn the parts of the car and how to make it move faster, and without the platform, it could fall apart,” which would dampen their chances of victory at the soapbox competition on August 5.
Using what they learn in the math part of the Grand Prix of Summer Learning, students apply mathematical concepts (such as how weight and time affect velocity) to the design of the soapbox racecars. “Just like engineers, students employ math and science concepts to the creation of something concrete,” explains Charlene Footman, the Grand Prix of Summer Learning coordinator at City Schools. “They very much assume the role of engineers in the program.” And in this particular part of the program, in which students build and eventually race soapbox cars, students spend the first week discussing the role of an engineer, and the following weeks fulfilling that role.
Before building the soapbox cars, they also crafted—and even raced—model cars powered by carbon dioxide (pictured left). “The cars were light and went really fast—and I cut off some [balsa wood] to make mine move faster,” says 6th-grade engineer Julene.
According to Jessica Hitabidel, a math teacher at John Ruhrah and the activities director there this summer, this kind of learning, in which students make discoveries through first-hand observations and experiences, is what the Grand Prix of Summer Learning is all about. The program "brings learning into the real world,” she says, and lets them "learn math through action while having fun.”
Another math teacher, Filomeno Tabo, working this summer as a soapbox car facilitator, agrees. “Students are making use of math in a practical way,” he says. “They love it, and they’re all engaged in designing their own cars.”
The excitement Mr. Tabo describes is apparent, as members of both teams pore over the assembly guides, sort out nuts and bolts, handle tools with precision and care and discuss design options. Circling the room, Mr. Tabo encourages students when they get stuck but doesn’t answer their questions or fix their problems. Instead, he nudges them gently in the right direction and reminds them to remain patient as they discover and work with the laws of physics.
The best evidence of enthusiasm comes at the end of the day, when Mr. Tabo prompts students to put away their materials—and a loud moan of regret interupts the quiet focus of the day.