Solar Sprint


(This 892nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on April 27, 2008.)


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2007 Northeastern Junior Solar Sprint Races in Springfield, Massachusetts


I am amazed at the toys that are available to kids nowadays. Last year our primary school neighbors, Joey and Julia Wick, drove slowly down our sidewalk in their electric powered jeep. When I'm out hiking I meet ten year olds riding tiny but powerful dirt bikes. (I approve of the former but wonder what the parents of the latter are thinking.)


When we were kids, we didn't have such things. The only power supply we had were our own legs and arms. Well, not quite. We also had the rubber bands that we wound up to drive our model airplane propellers.


But we made do. Every spring during runoff, we had races in the drainage ditch that ran behind our houses. Each of us cut a small shingle from the ashes in the nearby woodlot and set it floating downstream.  As with most of our games, the rules were loose, but dislodging a "boat" when it caught on a twig or ran ashore was allowed. The first to disappear into the drainage pipe under Elmwood Avenue a quarter mile away was that day's winner.


And we rode our carts down the road that went from our suburban Rochester neighborhood up to Cobb's Hill. Sometimes we "motorboated", steering backwards. I still bare scars from that nonsense.


We even rolled marbles down sloping sidewalks to see whose would go fastest.


I thought about those childhood activities when I learned from a reader of a program called Junior Solar Sprint. When I looked into this program, I found an activity that plays on the motivations we brought to our childhood races but that organizes and draws upon that motivation to provide rich learning experiences.


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John McNamara of Holland Central School

works on the power panel of a car with two other cars on the table.


The idea of Junior Solar Sprint is straightforward. Kids build small solar-powered model cars and race them along a 20 meter course.


Yes, I said solar-powered. When I first heard that description, I reacted as I suspect many of you readers have now. Pretty technical for kids, I thought. But the solar power turns out to be through a very straightforward arrangement. Contestants each connect a small solar panel mounted atop their car to a motor that drives the car's wheels. (On days when the sun is not out, they substitute a battery panel for power.) The connections are elementary -- not much more complicated than wiring a light switch.


Sounds simple and of course it is, but remember that this is a race. Within the carefully stated rules, the participants must now design a fast car.


A number of middle schools across the country include this competition as part of their science curriculum and I attended a session in which experienced teachers shared ideas with beginners. I came away impressed with a number of program features, among them, its many academic benefits. Students learn about such things as gear ratios, energy transmission, force and motion, electric circuits, solar panels and sustainable energy, motors and car design.


I consider these excellent features of a middle school curriculum and the experienced teachers were enthusiastic about their students' response to the activities that support them.


For example, one teacher described how her students invariably approach gear ratios. They want a very fast car so they attach a very large power source gear to a very small one. Indeed, when they try it out, the small gear whizzes around very fast. When they connect the small gear to the car wheel, however, nothing happens. The lesson is immediate: they have traded power for speed. Their gear choice must derive from a compromise between these measures.


Junior Solar Sprint is sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, the U.S. Army and Pitsco, a producer and distributor of educational products. The leaders of the workshop I attended were Susan Reyes, Carl Berger, Charlie Burke and Ken Welton.


The 2008 Buffalo Solar Sprint will be this coming Saturday, May 3, at the Jamison Road Fire Hall at Maple Road in Elma. Judging will begin at 9 a.m. with participants evaluated not only for their car design but for their knowledge as well. The double-elimination races will commence around 11 a.m. Winners will go on to the Northeast Championship in Springfield, Massachusetts.-- Gerry Rising