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Fast Cars and Science Thrill Colorado Students

May 15, 2012

In this  photo, three eighth-grade girls in green T-shirts beam as they hold up a green  car that is about eight inches long. Enlarge image

Yasmine Lamé, Naia Tenerowicz, and Grace Simpson of Woodlands Academy in Castle Rock celebrate winning first place in design for hydrogen fuel cell cars at NREL's Junior Solar Sprint, Hydrogen Fuel Cell, and Lithium Ion Battery car competitions, held at Dakota Ridge High School in Littleton, Colorado, on May 12, 2012.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

The buzz inside Dakota Ridge High School's gym on Saturday was palpable, the conversations ranging from whispers to shrieks.

Indy-500-style checkered flags, high-tech neoprene rubber tracks, and, of course, sponsor decals graced the site of the Junior Solar Sprint, Hydrogen Fuel Cell, and Lithium Ion Battery car competitions for Colorado middle schoolers.

Forty-five seconds before start time, seventh-grade boys raced to the repair table to solder metal parts together. Minutes after a time trial, eighth-grade girls had tweaked their designs and were ready for another heat, determined to shave a few seconds off their best time.

Parents smiled on the outside, butterflies churning on the inside. Coaches rounded up their teams; team members scattered to plot strategy or climb the wooden bleachers.

This wasn't your grandfather's mini-car race.

This was the 22nd annual electric car competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the DOE Office of Science, Rocky Mountain Bottled Water, the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, Jefferson County Schools, Dakota Ridge High School, and the DOE Golden Field Office.

And to win, place, or just see solid improvement meant the world to participants in 104 teams from 23 Colorado schools.

Long Hours, Tangible Rewards

In  this photo, two middle-school boys are crouched down on a strip of neoprene  rubber watching their red car take off at the start of a car race. A green car  is next to it, neck and neck. Enlarge image

Austin Parks, left with hat, and Zach Schwarz, second from right, of Estes Park Middle School race in the hydrogen fuel cell division.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

Cradling her hydrogen-powered model car like it was a baby chick, Naia Tenerowicz, 13, beamed in delight Saturday afternoon.

Her team's car, "Tommy the Tesla," had just finished first in a time trial, and its shape, engineering, and overall cuteness made it a favorite for the design award.

"It's made out of floral foam, the stuff you stick fake flowers into," Naia, a student at Woodlands Academy in Castle Rock, said. "It's really powdery, and you can squish it into shape easily. We spray it with sealant and then with white and green spray paint. And by then it's elastic and rubbery and a lot tougher."

The hydrogen fuel cell cars must use the standard cell sold by Numeridian, as well as a provided motor, electrolyzer, and battery pack. The rest of the design — chassis, wheels, shape, etc. — is up to the teammates, but the finished car can't be more than 20 centimeters wide or 40 centimeters in length. And to win a speed trophy, it had better get down the 10-meter track in about five seconds.

The solar-powered cars must use one of two designated solar panels, must be less than a foot wide and two feet long, and must be ready to switch to AA batteries on a cloudy day — like Saturday. The cars race 20 meters down the neoprene track, hooked via eyelet to a taut guide wire to stay in a straight line.

Lithium-Ion Makes its Debut

Photo  of a boy crouched down at the blue-striped starting line, holding the back  wheels of his car, while a 20-ounce water bottle sits upright on the car's  chassis. Enlarge image

Todd Bramblett of Fitzsimmons Middle School in Bailey prepares his team's lithium-ion car "The Rage" during the final eliminations of the lithium-ion battery division of the competitions. Todd's team won first place.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

This was the first year for a third design — the lithium-ion battery. Competitors used batteries, motors, connectors, and chargers provided by Horizon Hobby. Their races were won or lost by how well a team designed the rest of the car and how ingeniously they designed the compartment to carry extra payload — a 20-ounce water bottle placed on the chassis to provide stabilizing weight.

The winners of the inaugural lithium-ion race were from Fitzsimmons Middle School in Bailey, with a car named "Rage," which blazed to the finish line in just a beat over five seconds.

"We don't really have a captain, but Todd is the bossiest," Fitzsimmons team member Jeffrey Brown said.

Todd Bramblett cheerfully agreed. "Last year we went for a straight triangle, but this year we had a contest for the design that was the fastest, and we went with this one," which looks like a Gothic knife handle, Todd said. "I guess it worked fine."

The team credits a decision to put wide rubber bands on the rear wheels for the extra traction that gave them the victory by a few hundredths of a second.

Todd ranks the win as his second-greatest life thrill, right behind the motocross time trials he won when he was younger.

Todd, Jeffrey, Brian Wismar, and Justin Boline said they're interested in football, baseball, and other sports, but that in the long run they can see future careers in engineering or physics. They worked three hours a week for several weeks on the car, which will soon find a permanent place in their school's trophy case.

Woodlands Academy had a day to remember. It finished one-two in the race for the fastest solar-powered car with "Speedy Mercury" and "Perry the Platypus."

Its "Bobby the Bottle Rocket" won a first-place trophy for design in the lithium ion category, based on technology, craftsmanship, and innovation. And "Tommy the Tesla," the car Naia Tenerowicz cradled like a baby chick, came in first in design for the hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Students Have Stars and Science in Their Eyes

In  this photo, the two girls on the left are on their knees, in green T-shirts,  raising their hands in celebration. The two girls on the right, in black  T-shirts, have different reactions, one a look of resignation, one with her  face buried in her hands. Enlarge image

Grace Simpson and Yasmine Lamé of Woodlands Academy and Anahi Portillo and Isabella Ulibarri of Estes Park Middle School react during elimination races in the hydrogen fuel cell division.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

Naia, Grace Simpson, and Yasmine Lamé said they probably put in 100 hours on "Tommy."

Asked if this was their only interest, the trio laughed and said in unison, "We do everything."

"Legos, robotics, and all three of us were in theater," Yasmine said.

If they had to choose between an Academy Award for Best Actress and a Nobel Prize in Physics?

"Nobel Prize in Physics," Yasmine and Grace said without hesitation.

"Best Actress, I'm not going to lie," Naia said, laughing.

Wait 'Til Next Year

After the races and the awards, teams gathered their cars and their parts. Parents put arms on shoulders and said, "You'll do better next year," and "Are you kidding? You did great."

With the tracks rolled up and stored for the 2013 competitions, race starter David Ginley, a world-renowned scientist from NREL, took time to reflect.

"It was great. I think we're changing lives," Ginley, who has won five R&D 100 Awards for scientific innovation, said. "High school is sometimes too late; elementary school is too early. But right now, when they're in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, something like this can really provide a spark.

"I've been doing this long enough that I've seen kids who've participated in these races, gone on to get internships at NREL during college, then come back as post-docs, making a career of it," he said. "It's very gratifying."

Learn more about NREL's education programs.

— Bill Scanlon

Trophy Winners at the 2012 Middle-School Electric Car Competitions

Lithium-Ion Cars, Speed Competition:

First Place: Fitzsimons Middle School, Bailey, "Rage"
Second Place: Woodlands Academy, Castle Rock, "Walter the Water Tanker"
Third Pace: Bell Middle School, Golden, "The Lightning"

Lithium-Ion Cars, Best Design:

First Place: Woodlands Academy, "Bobby the Bottle Rocket"
Second Place: University Schools, Greeley, "Battery #1"
Third Place: The STEM Academy, Highlands Ranch, "Battery Systems Avenue"

Junior Solar Sprint, Speed Competition:

First Place: Woodlands Academy, "Speedy Mercury"
Second Place: Woodlands Academy, "Perry the Platypus"
Third Place: Estes Park Middle School, "Purple Terror"

Junior Solar Sprint, Best Design:

First Place: Lincoln Academy Middle School, Arvada, "Energy Engineers"
Second Place: Littleton Academy, "LA Solar"
Third Place: Roxborough/Ranch View, Highlands Ranch, "Solar Zapper"

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars, Speed Competition:

First Place: Drake Middle School, Arvada, "Hydrogen II"
Second Place: Estes Park Middle School, "Ricky the Recycling Bin"
Third Place: Estes Park Middle School, "Never Shout Never, Girls"

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars, Best Design:

First Place: Woodlands Academy, "Tommy the Tesla"
Second Place: Lincoln Academy, "The Nerds"
Third Place: University Schools, Greeley, "Meme"