Racing with the sun
This Saturday, May 2, more than 200 fifth and sixth graders from schools across Martha's Vineyard will gather at the Martha's Vineyard Boys and Girls Club in Edgartown. They'll bring their custom-designed solar-powered cars to race in the sixth annual Speed of Light Model Solar Car Race, co-sponsored by Cape Light Compact and the Vineyard Energy Project.
The race was created to adapt to the fifth and sixth grade science curriculum; students learn about renewable energy, design, engineering, measurements, simple machines, planning, and teamwork in the weeks leading up to the race.
Starting with kits donated by the co-sponsors, students are guided by their teachers and by Vineyard Energy Project's Education Coordinator Kara Gelinas to apply their knowledge and imagination to the fabrication of small solar-powered cars.
"They love it!" exclaims Ms. Gelinas. "It's a hand-on way to make a connection between what they do and the larger renewable energy picture."
Armed with one solar panel, a motor, a variety of gears, wheels and axles, students work in teams of two or three to create solar-powered cars that are aerodynamic, fast and durable. The basic components are the balsa wood base, gears, axles, solar panel and motor - everything else "is negotiable," according to Lynn Gatchell, a fifth and sixth grade science teacher at the Tisbury School.
"We see cars made from Styrofoam, soda bottles, milk jugs, you name it," she says.
Students compete against other teams from their own schools. The 10 judges will score each team on technical merit, knowledge, and design. Prizes are awarded in those three categories as well as for the fastest three cars.
Although this year's Tisbury School cars are being built only by sixth graders, students from fifth and seventh grades are drawn in as part of the enthusiastic entourage.
Ms. Gatchell says that her fifth grade students serve as supportive onlookers during the construction phase and that many seventh grade students stop by to watch and lend their expertise as well.