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Waving the green flag of learning

‘Even though I lost, the experience matters more than winning’

Grandville — In Bruce Marvel’s eighth-grade STEM classroom, the stage was set for an epic day of drag racing. 

Above the race track, a timer blinked 0:00, ready to calculate the blazing speed of the students’ handmade, CO2-powered wooden race cars. On the wall, a tournament bracket displayed the racing match-ups and which students were moving on to the next round. Through the classroom speakers, a peppy medley of 70s classics blared to get the students fired up.

And one intrepid reporter was in the way.

“Uh, let’s not have you stand right there,” Marvel cautioned said reporter, who was positioned at the finish line, ready to capture the photo of victory. “We have had one of these (cars) explode in the past, so…”

From Pine to Peak Performance

This is the fourth year that Marvel’s STEM eighth-graders at Grandville Middle School have been building their dragsters. Over the years, the class has built a reputation for the wooden cars, and race day often attracts spectators from all over, including Superintendent Roger Bearup and even some local Grandville firefighters.

But what those race-day visitors don’t get to see is all the work leading up to the big race. 

“Without (students) really knowing, they’ve learned aerodynamics, drag, leverage, the scientific method, forces…” said Marvel of all the different scientific elements that go into designing a dragster. “And then in order to actually make (the cars), they have to learn the equipment and pass all their safety tests. They use all of the power tools in here, except for the table saw, and they do a really good job of it.” 

Each student starts with a block of pine wood and a set of measurements that their car must meet to participate in the races. After that, they’re on their own: they research car designs, weight of the wood, wheel alignment and other factors that could affect the car’s speed and trajectory.

‘It’s probably like the most fun and unique class out of all of them, because instead of just writing stuff down, you actually, like, use bench tools and spray paint and all that. It’s like a little break in the day. I like using the tools a lot. And instead of just telling you that you’re doing something wrong, Mr. Marvel lets you try to figure it out.’

— eighth-grader Nolan Hoendervanger

Once they have their original design solidified and cut out of the wood block, they use both high- and low-velocity wind tunnels with a smoke generator to see how air will pass over and around their car. If the wind test shows a lot of drag around the car, they modify the design. And again, and again, if necessary. 

As a final step before the big races, they use an inclined plane to see if their car will roll straight. If not, it’s time for more adjustments. 

(Oh — and then there’s the paint job. No race car can be complete without a paint job.)

From left, eighth-graders Hailey Martinez-Mijangos, Therese Gulker and Nolan Hoendervanger show off the different designs of their handmade dragsters

Figure it Out

If all that testing sounds tedious, Nolan Hoendervanger is ready to set you straight.

“It’s probably like the most fun and unique class out of all of them, because instead of just writing stuff down, you actually, like, use bench tools and spray paint and all that,” the eighth-grader said. “It’s like a little break in the day. I like using the tools a lot. And instead of just telling you that you’re doing something wrong, Mr. Marvel lets you try to figure it out.” 

In building his car, Nolan came up with an original design instead of modeling anything he found during research. He wanted to create a shape that was as smooth and as thin as possible, “so that it’s lightweight and it can run fast,” he said. He also tried to factor in aerodynamics, with the goal of having as little drag as possible. 

“I thought that it would run a little bit faster, but yes, I’m happy about how it turned out,” he said post-race. “I probably should have made it a bit thinner and probably smooth it out a bit more.” 

Classmate Therese Gulker started the project by researching the fastest type of car that has currently been engineered, an electric Mercedes. She decided to model her car after that design and gave it a paint job meant to look “like the car’s defying gravity.”

“What I learned about aerodynamics is that even the slightest bit of sanding can alter it — like the slightest puff of wind could alter your numbers or your speed, or really anything,” Therese said. “It’s pretty cool once you get the hang of it.”

Both Therese and Nolan said the best part of the dragster project has been the freedom that Marvel gives them to try, fail and try again. 

“He lets you do your own thing and gives you a little bit more of a leash to try stuff, and always makes sure you’re safe,” said Therese of their teacher. “That whole learning process, and learning how to use a bandsaw, an oscillating belt sander, it teaches you a lot. And even though I lost, the experience matters more than winning.” 

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Rockford, Lowell, Grandville and Cedar Springs. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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