It turns out there’s a lot of science to be learned from a Hot Wheels racetrack.
A group of Union College engineering students brought their love of engineering and race cars Thursday to King Magnet School.
The goal: teach fourth-graders how to set up experiments.
The tools: race cars, tracks, and an enticing cup of shaving cream.
The students had to determine where on the track to start the car so that it would hit a jump and land in the shaving cream rather than overshooting it to hit the nearby wall.
The task wasn’t just play: they had to measure each starting point so they could replicate their jumps and, hopefully, watch the car hit the cream again and again.
Science teacher Chris Greco also hoped the college students would help the students practice their vocabulary before their state science exam. He wanted them ready to write about the need to increase kinetic energy, rather than explaining that they had to move the car up to make it go faster.
The college students wanted to give students the thrill of experimentation and, perhaps, nurture a seed that could grow into a love of science.
None of them recall fun experiments in elementary school, and definitely nothing involving toy cars racing off jumps.
“We’re trying to change things a little bit, because we didn’t have that experience,” said Engineers Without Borders club member Connor Owen, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering.
And change things they did, with their very presence.
The first thing the fourth-graders observed: Most teachers don’t sprawl out on the floor to take notes. But Union College students do.
And they don’t talk about science in the abstract.
“When you build bridges in real life, you’ll have to add structural supports,” Owen casually told the class as he propped a chair under a sagging portion of the racetrack.
Students emulated him eagerly, trying to rattle off words that sounded scientific. But finding the right language was hard.
His teacher, J.P. Hebert, stepped in when the students began to use figures without including their terms of measurement.
“Sixty-eight what? Elephants? Hamburgers?” he asked.
“Centimeters!” the class shouted.
Later, they all struggled to find the right words to tell Owen how to get the car into the cup of shaving cream.
“I’m trying,” said Lokesh Pitamber, 10. “We have to … increase … the height? To give it more … power?”
Sure enough, Pitamber got to move the car 10 centimeters up the track. He released. It bounced off the floor just in front of the cup.
After they finally found the right place from which to release the car, they brought it back to their grease-penciled mark again and again, marveling as the car hit the target every time.
Pitamber said he didn’t just learn how to set up an experiment.
“We learned how you need to be specific,” he said. “You can’t just say ‘this thing.’ ”