LENOIR — Organizers plan to use the old pastime of a soapbox derby to inspire new science and engineering interest in students.
A local team representing Meadowview Middle School traveled to Lenoir Saturday to compete in the fourth annual North Carolina Gravity Games, sponsored by Google and Appalachian State University.
Google Caldwell County Data Center Operations Manager Enoch Moeller said the games began as a competition where Google supplied derby car kits to several schools as a “feeder” project to ultimately inspire future engineers. Typically the competition has one division for cars from kits to race and another division where cars are built to answer an engineering problem.
“Kids learning about energy and physics and having fun is an important part of this,” said Moeller. “The original intent was community outreach. Google is solidly behind the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) efforts of educators. A part of this as well is we want to have a future workforce in the pipeline. It’s important for kids to be in STEM fields. We thought this would be something fun, hands on and an event easily done in downtown Lenior.”
Moeller, who is a mechanical engineer, said the first theme for the games was “NASCAR” with each office at the center decorated to honor racers. He said organizers were considering challenging contestants to supplement their car with battery power but the life of the battery cannot last the entire course.
He pointed out he feels one important way to interest future scientists and engineers is to show “really cool, exciting stuff can be done” using STEM. Moeller also pointed out skills in these fields translates directly to technical careers and is important to economics.
Meadowview Middle School student Marshall Martin said in previous years the school has had students go to the games to watch the races. He said he was impressed with the cars starting off a ramp in the races that year. Mustang Coach Joe Whisnant said the team has two cars, both are working models with one serving as a backup show car and the other one which is intended to do all the “heavy lifting” in competition.
He said the team normally works during flex time at school on the cars which require precise measurement to align the axles and calculations on the best amount of weight and weight distribution. The races are carried on under American Soap Box Derby Association rules. Whisnant said it is a stressful competition with finishes often decided in the hundredth’s of a second. He said he has been with the games since they first began, and coached a team for Alleghaney County.
“Every year there are more people, more cars and more stress,” said Whisnant. “It’s a race everybody wants to win. You’re racing against some who have advisers who race year round. This is about real world skills. Working with their hands, turning the wrenches and learning how wood reacts.” The team agreed they had interests in science going into the competition and they are confident of their calculations.
The members of the Gravity Games Team are Keanan Chandler, Abigail Padgett,Maggie Upchurch, Ajahlee Pepper,Erika Almaraz, Jordan Gomez, Dashaun Bush, Leslie Nguyen, Caden West, Marshall Martin, Karlie Marion, Chase Cornell and Levi Horton.
Thirty teams from across the state were slated to compete in the event. The games featured new or expanded scientific exhibits from Discovery Place in Charlotte and the Catawba Science Center in Hickory in the races which have become a signature event for the North Carolina Science Festival.
“It’s down to the last minute now,” Whisnant said late last week heading into the event. “It’s tough in a way for me to see how much more of the little things they have left to do as we get ready for Saturday. Eighty percent of this is the driver. You spend lots of time telling them things over and over. Don’t turn so much, stay low and take the shortest route.”
David Broyles may be reached at 336-719-1952 or on twitter@MtAiryNewsDave.