We teamed up with Appalachian State University (ASU) to co-host a soapbox race, hoping that young people would bring the same excitement they had for NASCAR to this hands-on engineering activity and gain some technological ingenuity along the way. The race was divided into three divisions: middle school, high school and an open group for university, corporate or private teams. Each car would compete for both speed and creativity honors. During the months leading up to the event, ASU’s physics, technology and design graduate students and Googlers from the data center in Caldwell County served as mentors for the teams and provided the students with technical assistance and advice.
On November 19, I joined a team of Googlers from the data center and several hundred parents, kids and their derby cars in downtown Lenoir for the race. While most families were still in their PJs, we were busy transforming Church Street into a race track—complete with hay bales, a custom-built starting gate, finish line, a race timer designed by the team at the data center, an event emcee and 34 colorful soapbox cars. Some even had sponsor logos, just like real race cars.
Teams from Alleghany, Avery, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba and Watauga counties competed to be the fastest car on the hill and the kids had an “in-it-to-win-it” swagger. Some had designed their own custom T-shirts, while one driver dressed up in a Super Mario costume. One team created a box-turtle car made from metal and wood and there were several cars with custom paint jobs that included bright red flames and a few bug eyes.
The vehicles had to run solely on potential energy. No electrical, chemical or animal-powered sources were allowed. (Because you never know what kids are capable of, we forbade nuclear power in the rules, too, just in case.) The only thing cars could run on was gravity and—for the upper age divisions—potential mechanical energy, such as springs, weights, elastic or flywheels. Most of the teams stuck with gravity as the primary accelerator and focused on reducing friction, optimizing vehicle weight and selecting the fastest path down the race course.
The Church Street race track was 650 feet long, and the average speed over the course of the track was 17 miles per hour. Top speeds at the finish line topped 30 miles per hour, and our winners clocked in with total times around 26 seconds.
With a time of 26.213 seconds, Hudson Middle School won the speed category in the middle school division, beating 22 other teams. Caldwell Career Middle College won the speed category in the high school division, defeating seven other high school teams with a time of 26.962. Hudson Middle School also won the People’s Choice Award, given to the car the attendees voted as their overall favorite. Each team entered a car that was either custom-built or was created from an approved kit.
In the creativity category, Jacobs Fork Middle School and St. Stephens High School took home top honors. In the open division, ASU’s North Carolina Center for Engineering Technologies won for its two-bicycle design.
The Gravity Games was one of my proudest moments as a Googler. Beyond being a great time, it gave young people a way to get excited about science, technology and engineering. The students who participated in the soapbox races are future engineers and scientists (and possibly Googlers), and I hope they’ll have more opportunities to inspire their peers and this community with the incredible abilities we saw that morning.
Naturally, we’re already planning to host another Western North Carolina Gravity Games in the spring of 2012 and we’ll be including more North Carolina communities. You can view the complete results and event photos at www.ncgravitygames.com.
Posted by Enoch Moeller, Hardware Operations Manager