Pinewood Elementary students bring home top prizes for solar cars in statewide event
STUART ― Fifth-graders from Pinewood Elementary School told the members of the Martin County School Board May 21 just how they managed to walk away with top honors in the model solar vehicle category of the Junior Solar Sprint held last month in Cocoa Beach.
Their science lab teacher, Michelle Heath, described how hard the students had worked for more than three months to create the cars capable of grabbing the attention of the judges at the annual event held as part of the University of Central Florida’s EnergyWiz Expo May 4.
“They took the entire category for Innovation and one of the teams also took a Second Place in Design and there were only three categories, so that’s pretty good, that’s two out of three,” she said. “We have had a Solar Club for two years and this year the students worked for 15 weeks two or three times after school designing these solar cars. Their parents have been coaches and they’ve also dedicated their time with expertise, experiences and different things.”
Ms. Heath then introduced the nine fifth-graders who competed as three separate teams in the competition held at the UCF Solar Energy Center. Two of them, Varun Singh and Arnav Vivek, were the first to address the School Board as the members of Team Checkers or Wreckers. Varun described some of the things the pair had learned, along with the attributes of the vehicle they created.
“We learned about the pros and cons of solar energy and how a car works,” he said. “We made it to be very aerodynamic: It has walls on the sides to stop drag and air resistance and solar panels angled at the front to cut through the wind. Our favorite part of designing the car was getting to test it because it lets us know what changes are going to be made and how we can fix it. It also allowed me and Arnav to work as a team.”
His teammate described the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy.
“There are a lot of pros and cons about solar energy,” Arnav explained. “One pro is that it really helps the environment and it doesn’t use a lot of fossil fuels and doesn’t cause pollution. There are also cons: if there’s no sun and you are driving at night, you can’t use the solar energy unless you also have electricity in the car.”
Arnav also explained how Checkers or Wreckers caught the eye of the judges with their vehicle.
“We won First Place in Innovation and Second Place in Design because we had a lot of creative ideas and unique materials,” he explained. “We got something in Design because we made it very aerodynamic, and they liked the shape of the car and they liked the design.”
The four members of the next team, Beetle Bullets, then came up to the podium to describe their work, beginning with David St. Juste, who concentrated on some of the technical aspects.
“We designed a model prototype car powered by solar energy,” he said. “I worked on the circuity of the car and helped design and build the car. I enjoyed working on the support of our solar panel for the car, which used a plastic cup, Velcro and bending straw blocks we designed to use as flexible support for the panel.”
David then introduced Tyler McLaughlin, who admitted he learned a lot with the project.
“I enjoyed working on the gears and the gear ratio, and I learned about aerodynamics, chassis, design and drag,” he said. “We designed experiments to study aerodynamics, and we used incense and smoke with a fan to study the airflow over shapes for the study of speed.”
One of his two other partners, Juan Escandon, couldn’t help revealing his passion for the mathematical components of their creation.
“What I enjoyed most about this was learning formulas, math and science,” he said. “One of the formulas I learned was force equals mass times acceleration due to gravity. It’s a concept that never changes as long as we stay on Earth. Our acceleration due to gravity was 9.81 meters per second squared. Another formula I enjoyed learning was speed equals distance over time.”
The last member of the Beetle Bullets team to speak, Michael Mikati, emphasized the improvisational problem-solving skills the group needed to improve their vehicle’s performance.
“I think the biggest problem was that our car was too heavy,” he said. “The amount of force wasn’t going to change, so next time I think we should cut the weight more by getting a lighter chassis. Another problem we had was from the islet on the bottom [where] there was a string corrected through it so it wouldn’t go off track. It was too long, so during the race we had to cut it, and it improved our speed. The last problem we had was that the wheels were grinding on the chassis, so we had to sand some of the chassis and change the bushings from straws to plastic.”
The three members of the Speed Is Key Team – Zully Valdez, Kathryn Rogers and Ella Smith – were the last students to approach the podium.
“This is my first year engineering a solar car,” Zully said, as she expressed the hope of similar projects at the middle-school level this fall. “I enjoyed the teamwork and learning about solar energy and the competition and look forward to bringing this to Anderson Middle School.”
One of her partners, Kathryn Rogers, emphasized the mechanical and technical aspects of their project, as well as describing one of the initial problems they faced during the competition.
“One of the challenges designing our car was finding the correct gear ration,” she said. Initially the gears weren’t touching, which makes them not bite, causing the car to move slowly. Our gears weren’t meeting properly, and when they did, they were going off track and grinding up our motor, which made our car go slower.”
The Speed Is Key group then buckled down to solve the problem as well as another that cropped up afterwards.
“We changed the gears to a small-to-large ratio and a four-to-one ratio, which made our car move efficiently, Kathryn explained. “This year we built a low-profile car, which could be more aerodynamic. When we lined our car up for the trial run, we had a lot of drag at the competition. It was too low because we had two platforms right here. So, at the end of the competition, we had to cut off a book spiral and put this into our car. It worked really well.”
The last member of their team, Ella Smith, talked about how much the students had learned throughout the process.
“I will be talking about solar energy today and its pros and cons and how it affected our testing and the real event,” she told the Board. “There are many pros and cons of solar energy. Some of the big cons are it can’t always be used: When it’s dark or cloudy, it’s not very usable, and we have to store energy, but it doesn’t always last. The pros is that it’s natural energy, and we can use it for billions of years. It’s not like gas, fuels and fossil fuels. I really enjoyed having this competition and thank you for your time.”
After the presentation of the three teams, outgoing Student Representative and South Fork High School senior Nicole Daly thanked them for sharing their experiences.
“You all are so smart, creative and well-spoken,” she said. “I’m excited to see what you guys do in the future with this.”
Their talent also caught the attention of School Board Member Michael DiTerlizzi.
“When you get old enough, I’ll hire each one of you to fix cars,” he said as the chambers erupted in laughter. “These guys are going to be well-equipped.”