River Falls High School freshman Gina Filkins had been to educational summer camps before, but not like this one. She also knew a couple of things about radio-controlled toys, like charge the battery, pull the trigger on the control and watch it go.
But how do you make it go faster, take corners better, accelerate faster, and avoid those nasty skids and wipe-outs? That involves quite a bit of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – what educators call the STEM fields. Teaching students like Gina and her River Falls classmate Evan Rank some scientific principles while they have fun with radio-controlled race cars was the idea behind the STEM Race Camp at Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire June 23-26.
“I learned so much,” Filkins said as she, Rank and two teammates worked on re-gearing their scale model stock car in preparation for a race. “The first day we learned about how the car works and the different parts. Now we’re learning about gears and aerodynamics.”
This is the second year of the camp, which drew participants in grades seven through high school from around CVTC’s 11-county district and even as far away as Illinois.
“There’s a national shortage of people going into STEM-related fields, and a lot of STEM jobs are in manufacturing,” said Jeff Sullivan, associate dean of manufacturing at CVTC. “We want to stimulate interest in these fields among young people who may not realize how exciting and challenging STEM careers can be.”
“I’ve never been interested in anything like STEM, but building a car seemed really interesting to me, and my dad’s an engineer,” Filkins said.
“This is something I’ve never done before, and it sounded pretty cool,” Rank said. “I’m interested in life sciences, but this sounded interesting too, so I wanted to try it.”
CVTC Nanoscience Technology Instructor John Wagner, the camp director, said this year’s camp integrated petroleum-independent transportation technology. “The idea is to educate students to apply different ways to charge the cars’ batteries instead of just plugging it into the electric power grid,” he said.
The cars were powered by either a hydrogen fuel cell, or by batteries charged through solar or wind power. “They studied the effectiveness of the technologies,” Wagner said.
The participants had a race-off early to determine who had first pick on the power technologies, with the hydrogen fuel cell being the most sought-after choice. Filkins’ and Rank’s team didn’t get a shot at that.
“We have wind, and that’s the one we wanted,” Filkins said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be sunny.”
The students found the science behind the fun and games fascinating. For example, races were run both on straight drag-racing and oval NASCAR-like tracks. The courses involve different engineering principles. Finlkns and Ranik were preparing for an oval track race.
“You want weight on the inside of the car,” said Rank, meaning the side of the car facing the inside of the oval. “And you can adjust it so the default position for the wheels turns to the left. We changed to different tires that work better on the ground outside.”
Nearby on another team, Meiyi Chen, a junior at Eau Claire Memorial High School, was counting the teeth on a gear. “We’re trying to figure out which is the best gear for our car,” she said. “We’re preparing for an oval track. We have to slow down a little bit to do the U-turn, then accelerate.”
“The larger the gear you put on, the higher the top speed, but the smaller a gear you put on, the greater the acceleration,” said Tucker Manderscheid, a freshman from Chippewa Falls Senior High School, referring to the type of gear he was working with at the time.
Students learned the physics behind that principle, and other concepts, like why a car moving too fast can’t make a corner, and what can be done to a car to minimize the problem. And they were all eager to learn. After all, it would help them win at the racing finals that concluded the camp activities.