2014-06-13 / Front Page

Middle school team wins on merit

Sixth-grade solar car squad earns first place at state competition
By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer


Ethan Eickmann, Julia Connolly, Ian Pizey and Connor Ellis (front) – sixth-graders from Middle School of the Kennebunks —pose proudly with their first-place medals for technical merit at the statewide solar car competition. The annual competition is sponsored by the Maine Energy Education Program. After learning about alternative sources of energy in their respective science classes, teams of three to four students designed and constructed their own solar-powered car to compete against other schools. Sixth-grade students from MSK have been competing for nearly 20 years. 
(Courtesy photo) Ethan Eickmann, Julia Connolly, Ian Pizey and Connor Ellis (front) – sixth-graders from Middle School of the Kennebunks —pose proudly with their first-place medals for technical merit at the statewide solar car competition. The annual competition is sponsored by the Maine Energy Education Program. After learning about alternative sources of energy in their respective science classes, teams of three to four students designed and constructed their own solar-powered car to compete against other schools. Sixth-grade students from MSK have been competing for nearly 20 years. (Courtesy photo) KENNEBUNK — For nearly 20 years, teams of sixth-graders from Middle School of the Kennebunks have been competing in the statewide solar car competition.

At this year’s state competition last Saturday, one team of four – Julia Connolly, Ethan Eickmann, Ian Pizey and Connor Ellis – won first prize for technical merit.


Sixth-grade students from Middle School of the Kennebunks ready their solar-powered cars at the starting line last Saturday at the annual state solar car competition in Owl’s Head. MSK took 16 teams to compete at the state level, one of which won a first-place medal for technical merit. The competition is the culmination of the sixth-graders’ science class project about understanding and harnessing alternative sources of energy. 
(Courtesy photo) Sixth-grade students from Middle School of the Kennebunks ready their solar-powered cars at the starting line last Saturday at the annual state solar car competition in Owl’s Head. MSK took 16 teams to compete at the state level, one of which won a first-place medal for technical merit. The competition is the culmination of the sixth-graders’ science class project about understanding and harnessing alternative sources of energy. (Courtesy photo) “It’s all about collaboration and problem solving,” said sixth-grade science teacher Leona Blatt.

Blatt, along with the other science teacher, Katy Scott, began teaching about alternative forms of energy resources, which includes solar cars, about a month ago.

“It’s all about integrating science and technology,” Blatt said of the project.

Students learned methods for how to construct the solar cars in preparation for the state competition. Students were divided into groups of three and four, given a series of guidelines, and then pushed to collaborate and construct a car.


Students from Middle School of the Kennebunks kneel at the start line and finish line as their solar powered cars race to win. The annual state solar car competition takes place in Owl’s Head and sixth-grade students from MSK have been competing for nearly 20 years. Students began the project by learning about green energy sources in science class. “It’s about integrating science and technology,” said sixth-grade science teacher Leona Blatt. 
(Courtesy photo) Students from Middle School of the Kennebunks kneel at the start line and finish line as their solar powered cars race to win. The annual state solar car competition takes place in Owl’s Head and sixth-grade students from MSK have been competing for nearly 20 years. Students began the project by learning about green energy sources in science class. “It’s about integrating science and technology,” said sixth-grade science teacher Leona Blatt. (Courtesy photo) Funding to attend the statewide solar car competition comes from the Maine Energy Education Program. Up until a few years ago, students who placed in the top three in one of the three grading areas at state competition – speed, technical merit and design – qualified, then, to compete in the northeast regional competition in Massachusetts, sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). The competition has since lost its funding, but the previously outlined rules still serve as a guidepost for competitors at the state level.

“The role of the adult is to nurture the spirit of excitement and the joy of discovery and learning that awaits students,” read the guidelines plotted by NESEA. “Adults should let students assume the responsibility for design decisions, construction and maintenance of their vehicle, performance at a race, and winning or losing.”

In other words, emphasis is on respective group independence when it comes to democratic problem solving, car design and construction, and execution. Some groups worked more effectively together than others.

Team members were given four roles to choose from: driver, manager, technician and scribe.

“I’d have to say the four of us, we had really good ideas,” said Connolly. “Our issue was that we all had really good ideas and we knew it, and we all wanted our ideas to be contributed equally.”

“We were all very confident in our academic ability and we’re used to being chosen,” said Ellis.

In an attempt to use everyone’s independently good ideas, the components of the winning team’s first car failed to function together fluidly. “The first car was a combination of all our bad ideas,” Ellis said.

The students initially tested their cars at the middle school’s Solar Car Day two weeks ago. “I’m not kidding when I say it looked like a rolling piece of coal. Our biggest downfall was it was twice as heavy as it should have been,” Connolly said of the first design.

“More like a stationary piece of coal,” Pizey said.

With time running out, Connolly, Pizey, Ellis and Eickmann decided to scratch their first model entirely and start anew just days before the state competition. That’s when the breakthrough came: to design the car like a boat and to use a more democratic approach to design.

“The fact that boats are hydrodynamic, means they cut through water really well, meaning they could cut through air really well,” Ellis said.

To make it lighter, the four students decided to use balsam wood, and to make it more aerodynamic and stable, the four students installed interior ribs, like in a canoe. “One of the most ingenious parts was to use bearings as our axel holders,” Ellis said of Eickmann’s idea.

The refined craftsmanship of the car earned it first place in technical merit. “The bearings and ribs gave it the big push,” said Ellis.

For the four students, their exemplary design was important, but what they learned along the way weighed heavier.

“This project was life-changing,” Connolly said. “When we get jobs in the near future, we’re going to have to work with people good and bad. We’re not always going to be CEOs. We have to learn how to work with all types of people.”

The reality of being adaptable among peers while learning to effectively collaborate is exactly what Blatt and Scott want students to glean from their experience in building solar-powered cars.

“Learning how to compromise, recognition of others’ ideas, working together – I do think that kids need to grapple with these things,” Blatt said.

Learning how to deal with frustration is a major part of the project. “It’s difficult when you work really hard on something and it works, and then you turn around and it doesn’t work,” said Daniel Walker- Dubay of his team’s car.

Walker-Dubay admitted that he didn’t enjoy the project as much as he would have liked, which is mostly due to lack of participation among fellow group members. Blatt emphasized the point that even though Walker-Dubay had a negative experience, the fact that he gleaned what prevents a team from functioning effectively is valuable and will better prepare him in future collaborative ventures.

Said Pizer, “It was really a fun project even if not a lot of teams performed well. People were still willing to come out and give it a shot.”

“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to win but it’s not just about competition,” Ellis said. “The competition is about problem-solving and working with people you might not have otherwise worked with.

“It’s one of the best things that has happened to me in the last year. I would do it again everyday if I could.”

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