Racing The Middle School Brain

[NPR captures the trials and tribulations of a group of middle school students as they work on their design for a human kinetics race car. This summer at the South Fayette STEAM Innovation Summer Institute I had a chance to watch middle school students grapple with similar challenges as they learned how to program drones to play student designed games. In both cases it’s a great STEAM challenge that keeps kids engaged and involved in an authentic problem.]

Students design drone game

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

When things heat up, they expand. And when that thing is the axle shaft to your drive train, you’re going to have to make adjustments, or else.

Michael Guarraia kneels down next to a metal part that just popped off the rear axle. “Ok guys, listen up,” he tells his team. “The drive train broke again and we need to find a sustainable solution. This can’t happen during the race.”

The team members nod and furrow their brows. Some scratch their heads.

Illustration of the pedal car

LA Johnson/NPR

In front of these young engineers is the 200-pound steel frame that is the base of their racing vehicle.

One gets up close and points to the piece that popped off. It’s called a woodruff key. “We need to reinforce this,” says Sean Davis, sketching his idea on a small white board. “Maybe with magnets?”

Illustration of a woodruff key

LA Johnson/NPR

Heads nod in agreement. “We could use duct tape, here,” Aiden Blair adds. They all look at Guarraia for an answer.

Good ideas, he tells them, but even with those fixes it still won’t be stable enough. And they were good thoughts, considering the “guys” are 11- to 13-year-olds, and this is middle school.

Welcome to Kinetic Race Club at Arbutus Middle School. Guarraia is a science teacher at the suburban Maryland school, about a 20-minute drive from Baltimore.

He and two dozen students are on an eight-month mission to design and build a human-powered kinetic sculpture that they’re going to race on a 15-mile obstacle course around Baltimore Harbor.

What, exactly, is a “kinetic sculpture”?

Basically it’s a giant piece of art that contains movement within it. It can only be powered by people—no motors allowed—so the designers have to get really creative.

Guarraia and his team agreed to let NPR Ed hang out with them as they built their vehicle and raced it. The drive-shaft crisis came in March – by this time they’d been working after school on their design for six months.

It was supposed to be a big day —the first day of test-driving— but the woodruff key popped out, causing the bike chain to slack and fall off.

The vehicle can’t run like this, so it’s back to the shop. But “Mr. G.” and the team have come a long way since day one. Let’s go back to the beginning.

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