Youngsters engineer solar-powered future

Montgomery middle schoolers build cars for race competition.

By: Steve Rauscher
   MONTGOMERY — They’re a foot long, made of balsa wood and plastic, and they’re pointing toward the future of transportation.
   That’s the idea, anyway.
   Middle schoolers from around Somerset County have spent the last few months designing and building miniature solar-powered cars for the Ridewise Junior Solar Sprints competition this weekend. The contest pits 24 cars in a set of double-elimination races to determine which space-aged vehicle can carry a soda can 20 meters the fastest, and look good doing it.
   "This is a great fit," Ridewise marketing director Donna McDonough said. "It gives students a chance to get hands-on experience with engineering, renewable resources and alternative forms of transportation."
   Ridewise is a nonprofit agency that promotes mass transit, carpooling and other traffic-saving transportation alternatives.
   No one is touting the students’ solar-powered models as prototypes for a transportation revolution, but they do provide kids with an opportunity to be creative and industrious, said Montgomery Middle School sixth-grade science teacher Erin Harsell, who has helped oversee the school’s car-construction bid.
   "Some of the kids have gotten really into it," she said. "They’ve worked really hard."
   The cars are assembled from a basic kit that includes a solar panel, an electric motor, gears and a battery pack. The builders experiment with gear ratios and weight distribution to find the design that enables the car to run to the end of a straight, 20-meter racetrack.
   The cars must be able to carry a payload consisting of an empty 12-ounce soda can, and be equipped to run on a guide wire as well as on a pair of AA batteries when the solar cells can’t provide enough juice. Adhering to these standards has resulted in some pretty zany insights, Ms. Harsell said. Students used plastic snack container lids as wheels on one of the vehicles to help it run straight. On another, they employed a foam beer cozy to house the soda can payload.
   "They’ve been remarkably good about using household items in unique ways," she said. "The cars themselves are pretty crude. They don’t look like cars. It’s just a piece of wood with four wheels. But the fun in it is just hooking up the battery or the panel and getting it going."
   In addition to speed, the cars will be judged on their craftsmanship — sturdiness and elegance of design — and innovation.
   Ms. Harsell said the Montgomery team might be at a disadvantage. This is the first year the school has entered the competition, and the project has been an extracurricular activity. Some competing schools have built the program into the curriculum.
   "I think we might not be able to do as well as we could have because other schools have been able to spend more time on it," she said. "But I just tell the kids that it’s our first time going, and they should have fun with it."