Students rev their engines for biggest heat of the year at Argonne’s Middle School Electric Car Competition

Students from John B. Murphy Elementary School in Chicago appeared nervous. They were just about to meet the judges for the Middle School Electric Car Competition, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. After all, the judges included some of the nation’s most respected engineers and research-and-development scientists.

The participants then started to vocalize how nervous they were, which ordinarily could be difficult for teenagers. Still, their coach, Claire Trainer, wished them luck and waited for their return, hoping they would be proud of their work.

As the students returned, almost running, they had the biggest smiles. They recounted the questions, their answers and the judges’ responses.

“It taught them about problem solving, adjusting on the fly and understanding that things don’t always work the first time. That is what engineering is like in the real world and we wanted them to experience that.” — Jessica Burgess, Argonne STEM Education Partnership and Outreach manager and event master of ceremonies 

“Their confidence was through the roof, and I could tell they felt like they belonged in this competition,” recounted Trainer, who is also a seventh and eighth grade teacher at Murphy. ​“Their pride was beaming from their faces. We talked about this for weeks after the competition. As our eighth graders graduated, they reflected on their year, and this event was a highlight for them.”

The Middle School Electric Car Competition included about 60 boys and girls from around Illinois. They represented 14 teams from 11 schools, including seven schools new to the competition. They gathered on April 13 at Argonne’s TCS Conference Center for a chance at some drag-racing fun while learning about teamwork, competition, engineering and problem-solving — especially on the fly. The free event was the first Middle School Electric Car Competition held in person since the pandemic and the first held at Argonne in more than a decade.

Students were provided instructions on how to build their electric cars, which had to weigh at least 1.5 pounds. Argonne provided a motor, plastic gears, batteries with a holder and wire connectors, a set of wheels, and a tiny, 3D-printed ​“driver.”

Teams also had the option to spend up to $20 of their own money or just reuse and repurpose items to finish their car. That led to some interesting choices. To get to 1.5 pounds, some students placed rocks inside the car. Others decorated the car with palm trees and other things. Some streamlined their design with three wheels, while others relied on a four-wheel boxy style, while staying within a set of parameters.

Like many participants, the Murphy team did not have much experience with electric vehicles or car design. So, they did research and learned different parts and functions. The students shared their information and ideas, worked to find pieces to build the vehicle and then asked the coaches if something needed to be purchased.

“The most memorable part was when the students got together in the (school) hall to test their car design and saw that it worked. As the car drove, they were cheering. … There were so many smiles, I could tell that they were proud,” said Trainer. The effort paid off when the Murphy team later earned a third-place award in the Design Category.

All teams had their vehicles race in three heats on race day. Whichever four cars had the fastest time would be in the final race. The crowd roared as schools raced neck and neck, leading to a slow-motion-style photo finish for second and third place, said Argonne STEM Education Partnership and Outreach Manager Jessica Burgess, who was the event master of ceremonies.

“The competition helps students to focus on the engineering and design processes, which helps them to learn more from any failures and how they would solve those problems,” said Burgess.

After all, they had months to build their cars before the big race. Then some had to work on the fly if their car didn’t perform as expected or if a wheel fell off. They had to figure out what happened.

“It taught them about problem solving, adjusting on the fly and understanding that things don’t always work the first time. That is what engineering is like in the real world, and we wanted them to experience that,” Burgess said.

First, second and third place teams received trophies and medals. Everyone earned participation certificates.

The Design Category winners were: first place, Butler Junior High in Oak Brook, Illinois; second place, H.H. Conrady Junior High School in Hickory Hills, Illinois; and third place, John B. Murphy Elementary School in Chicago.       

The Race Category winners were: first place, Sundling Junior High in Palatine, Illinois; second place, University of Chicago Laboratory School; and third place, Eisenhower Junior High, Team No. 2, in Darien, Illinois.

Other participating schools were Maple School in Northbrook, Illinois; Taft School District in Lockport, Illinois; Westview Hills Middle School in Willowbrook, Illinois; Daniel Wright Junior High in Lincolnshire, Illinois; and Cass Junior High School in Darien, Illinois.

The Middle School Electric Car Competition was funded by Argonne’s Science and Technology Partnerships and Outreach directorate.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology by conducting leading-edge basic and applied research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

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