2015-06-26 / Community

Setting the pace at Solar Sprints

Middle school team takes top speed at Maine Solar Sprint Championship
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Students from Middle School of the Kennebunks who participated in the Maine State Junior Solar Sprint Championship June 9 at Owl’s Head Transportation Museum are fronted by the team that set the pace for speed at the event. From left are Ian Martin, Thomas Johnson and Ben Johnson. (Duke Harrington photo) Students from Middle School of the Kennebunks who participated in the Maine State Junior Solar Sprint Championship June 9 at Owl’s Head Transportation Museum are fronted by the team that set the pace for speed at the event. From left are Ian Martin, Thomas Johnson and Ben Johnson. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — With the school year now over, a trio of students from the Middle School of the Kennebunks can slide into summer secure in the knowledge that they are the fastest things under the sun — literally.

At the Maine State Junior Solar Sprint Championship, held June 6 at the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, sixthgrade twins Ben and Thomas Johnson, along with their teammate Ian Martin, set Maine’s fastest time for student-built, solar-powered car.

“We’re really proud of them,” MSK Principal Jeff Rodman said. “They’re not just great science students, they’re really great kids and we’re really proud of their efforts and what they bring to our school. It was nice to see that they were able to come up with a design that worked really well, indoor and outdoors.”


Middle School of the Kennebunks sixth-graders, from left, Ben Johnson, Ian Martin and Thomas Johnson, pose with the car they built and used to set the fastest time at the Maine State Solar Junior Sprint Championship, held June 9 at the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum. (Duke Harrington photo) Middle School of the Kennebunks sixth-graders, from left, Ben Johnson, Ian Martin and Thomas Johnson, pose with the car they built and used to set the fastest time at the Maine State Solar Junior Sprint Championship, held June 9 at the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum. (Duke Harrington photo) When the qualifying run was held at MSK, the sun did not shine, and it was “too wet to play, all that cold, cold wet day,” as the Cat in the Hat might say, so trials were held in the school gym, using battery packs in place of the sun’s rays.

There, they set a blistering pace, as their car traveled the 20-meter drag strip in 6.27 seconds. But their time to shine was when they got to Owl’s Head. There, the boys’ car, by then equipped with a photovoltaic solar panel, completed its fastest run in 6.4 seconds.

True, that was a little slower than the indoor time. But powered by nothing but the sun, the MSK Special outran 100 cars from 49 other schools across the state, to take first place in the annual event, sponsored by the Maine Energy Education Program and the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.

“It was set up like a tournament, with five cars running at a time, and our car was the only car to never lose,” said Thomas Johnson.

And how did that feel? Johnson replied with a broad smile, as one might expect.

“It was really fun, actually,” he said.

“We were surprised,” said his brother, Ben, who admitted the team had hoped for a top 10, at best.

“We expected to win our first race because we had finished first at our school, but it wasn’t until the second or third race from the end when we began to think we might win the whole thing,” Martin said.

In addition to winning the actual race and the gold medal that goes with it, the boys also placed third in technical merit, for the construction of their car. Another MSK team, which included students David Dumas, Aiden Mahoney and Chris Fortin, came away with second place in that category.

“Our car started kind of slow but then gained a lot of speed,” Thomas Johnson explained. “Most other teams’ cars started out normal, but then lost power and started slowing down. So, ours was the opposite.”

“Obviously, our car doesn’t compete with actual engineers who build real cars, but I think it’s really cool that we’ve proved ourselves to have made the best sixth-grade solar car in the state,” Ben Johnson said.

Of course, the MSK team did get a good bit of luck along the way.

“We had one serious competitor,” Thomas Johnson said. “They had a really, good fast car. But they tested it one time too many between heats and crashed it into a picnic table.”

“Then our second biggest competitor, they forgot to attach the alligator clips (connecting the solar panel to the car motor) and so their car didn’t go anywhere,” Ben Johnson said. “But we still probably would have beat them, because we beat them earlier.”

This was the 21st year in which MSK has entered the solar sprint championship — the event itself is 22 years old — and, according Peter Zack, who runs the event, the school generally places well.

“Overall, we’ve been really successful,” said MSK science teacher Katy Scott. Now in her ninth year at MSK, Scott says this year’s win is the first state championship in her tenure.

“I think this is one of, if not the, fastest time set in school history, for sure,” she said, of the boys’ effort.

According to Scott, the annual effort all MSK students undergo to design and build a solar powered car is a study in hands-on, or project-based learning. Intended to foster independent problem solving, the project is a forerunner to the more recently fashionable STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum adopted by many area schools.

“It is completely aligned with STEM,” Scott said. “It is so cool because the kids really take the bull by the horns. It’s their doing. We give parameters, but we don’t give any specific advice or hands-on help. It’s totally their project.”

The motors and solar cells are provided, but for the project, students must scrounge for parts to build their chassis, wheels and transmission. For their car, Martin and the Thomas brothers scored a light piece of poster board for their car’s body and wrapped their cardboard wheels in rubber bands for added traction. An empty 12-ounce soda can served as the payload required of all competing cars.

Still, Scott said it was their determination to win that helped the championship team set the pace. While some teams were focused on design — one car was made to look like the batmobile — the eventual winners shed any accoutrement that did not contribute to speed.

“Their focus was so intense,” Scott said. “It was amazing. They were just on it each and every day. It was always, what are we going to do next? It was impressive.”

Even so, the car was completed in just six hours of building time. All eight sixth-grade science classes at MSK participated in building cars, while 10 teams won invites to the state meet, based on speed, technical merit and creative design. That experience for the students, who got to tour the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum during their visit, was made possible by parents who volunteered to stage the June 2 qualifying race.

“It took tons of parental and community support.” Scott said. “We had probably 20 parent volunteers. It’s their help that makes things like this possible. And the learning opportunity has been amazing. I have several students who are continuing to build cars at home, because they’re so enthusiastic about this.”

Among those students are the Thomas brothers. Thomas, who had once dreamed of becoming an architect, says the solar car project now has him considering a career as an engineer.

“That would be pretty cool, I think,” he said.

His brother Ben says he’s still intent on becoming rich by “manipulating the stock market,” while Martin says he’s interested in somehow making a living in the medical field.

But even if none of the boys goes on to a career in the sciences, they have earned one thing, for the summer, at least.

“Bragging rights,” said Ben Johnson, with a beaming smile.

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