Science education on the fast track

Eau Claire, WI - Sam Strecker’s car got off to a fast start, but started to spin a bit, tilted up on one side, then veered off and crashed in the grass.

“It’s not just going fast, it’s staying on the road,” said Sam, who will be an 8th grader at Chippewa Falls Middle School in the fall.

That fundamental of racing summed up his immediate problem, but there are more technical ways to look at it, and Sam learned about those, too, this past week. He was one of 25 students in grades 8 through 11 taking part in the Ten80 Student Racing Challenge: NASCAR STEM Initiative, a five-day camp at Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) in Eau Claire. The racing helped show youth the fun side of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The camp, which began Monday, June 17, culminated in a day of racing and awards recognitions this past Friday.

“There’s a national shortage of people going into STEM-related fields, and a lot of STEM jobs are in manufacturing,” said Mark Hendrickson, special projects manager in the manufacturing area 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.”

The participants were divided into teams, with each given a radio-controlled one-tenth size NASCAR stock car replica. Through a week of activities, students learned about concepts such as how might a car be geared differently if the race is a short, straightaway drag race, compared to a longer race on a circular or oval track. They discovered which tires are for different courses, and how different batteries affect performance.

Of course, aerodynamics will affect the car’s performance. So will the surface of the track. Cory Haas, an Eau Claire Memorial sophomore, found that out in being the “driver” in a morning drag race, not long after a rain.

“We had the best car, but not the best terrain,” he said. “We had a pretty clear lead, then spun out into the grass.”

“I had a blast this week,” said Leo Plewa, a 9th grader attending the Wildlands School in Augusta. “I hadn’t worked with radio-controlled cars before. I’m amazed at how fast they can go, and at the science behind the cars.”

Faith Bowe, a Chippewa Falls 8th grader, was the only girl on the teams on race day. She said she learned a lot during the week, and likes science class. But she was on the same page as many of the boys as the class wrapped up and participants got a little crazy with some cars they brought from home. “Watching the cars crash together is pretty funny,” she said.

CVTC instructor John Wagner, one of the camp leaders, said some of the participants had a background in radio-controlled vehicles, and they mixed them with people with no background in forming the teams. He said students not only enjoyed racing, but also the modifications to the vehicles. Some wanted to take it a step further.

“Some of the more advanced students wanted to do more in car building,” Wagner said.

A summer camp has to include fun, and the participants had plenty of that. This camp also served to stimulate interest in science and technology. Cody Funk, a freshman from Owen-Withee High Schiool, said his favorite part was actually the tour of CVTC’s Manufacturing Education Center and the seeing the high tech machines there.

Leo was totally in his element at the camp. “I love science,” he said. “It’s probably my favorite subject.”

Chippewa Valley Technical College delivers superior, progressive technical education which improves the lives of students, meets the workforce needs of the region, and strengthens the larger community. Campuses are located in Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire, Menomonie, Neillsville and River Falls. CVTC serves an 11-county area in west central Wisconsin. CVTC is part of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) and is one of 16 WTCS colleges located throughout the state.

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