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Middle Schoolers Face-Off in Model Car Challenge

May 1, 2012 - 10:04am

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The team of James Wei, Andrew Jin, Andy Xu, Allen Guo, and Will Chang from  Daniel Wright Middle School, in Lincolnshire, Illinois, built the fastest Lithium-Ion Battery Powered Model Car at this year's competition. At sub-6-second runs, their vehicle easily advanced to victory, being a full second faster than its closest rival. | Photo by Jack Dempsey, National Science Bowl.

The team of James Wei, Andrew Jin, Andy Xu, Allen Guo, and Will Chang from Daniel Wright Middle School, in Lincolnshire, Illinois, built the fastest Lithium-Ion Battery Powered Model Car at this year's competition. At sub-6-second runs, their vehicle easily advanced to victory, being a full second faster than its closest rival. | Photo by Jack Dempsey, National Science Bowl.

Amid the fast-paced battle of facts and computations at the National Science Bowl Finals this past weekend, another Science Bowl competition faced off Sunday where the rubber met the road. Forty-four teams entered the middle school Lithium-Ion Battery Powered Model Car Competition, and two teams distinguished themselves, one for speed and the other for design.

As an early leader with consistent sub-6-second runs down the 20-yard track, the Daniel Wright Middle School team, from Lincolnshire, Illinois, built the fastest car. Close on their heels were the second and third place teams from Treasure Valley Math and Science, in Boise, Idaho, and Glasgow Middle School, in Glasgow, Mont., with sub-7 runs in the final rounds. The best-designed car, and a resolute competitor in the time trials, belonged to the Trinity Junior High School team from Fort Smith, Ark.

Earlier this year, Science Bowl coordinators distributed kits containing a small electric motor, lithium-ion battery, battery connector, and recharger to the Science Bowl regional winners. The parts came along with a challenge: Build a model car that could move swiftly down a 20-yard track while carrying a 20-ounce bottle full of water. It was then up to the students and their advisers to dream up the body style and implement the mechanics to accomplish the feat -- from gear ratios to payload distribution.

On a track built in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School gymnasium, the 44 competing teams each ran one heat in three time trials. The teams with the 16 best times advanced to a double-elimination round to run-off for the win.

After the first time trial, it was apparent that Daniel Wright had the car to beat. Though, as demonstrated by the Treasure Valley team, whose car didn’t finish in their first heat due to a slipped band, it was still anyone’s competition. Treasure Valley was one of 23 vehicles that received a “Did Not Finish” (or DNF) mark in their first heat, which meant the vehicle jumped out of their lane, couldn’t make it all the way down the track or took more than 29 seconds to finish.

As it turns out, building a car from scratch isn’t easy. Whether the wheels popped off or the battery discharged too quickly leaving the vehicle idle several feet away from the finish line, students were encouraged to use the “Impound Lot” between heats. Marked by a paper sign and a box of safety goggles, the Impound Lot offered students a roped-off area with tables laden with scissors, rotary tools, and soldering irons to make adjustments to their vehicles.

Unlike other races where mid-race adjustments are forbidden, officials always kept in sight the reason for the competition -- to teach students about engineering and science. By the third heat, most vehicles experiencing difficulties in the first couple heats had fine-tuned their machines to complete at least one run. 

The Daniel Wright and Trinity teams stood among the victors of the academic competition at the closing awards ceremony April 30 at the National Building Museum. Both teams were presented $500 for their schools’ science departments. 

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