Argonne National Laboratory

Middle school engineers find success in iteration in Electric Car Competition

By Justin H.S. BreauxMay 24, 2017

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory joined CNH Industrial to showcase the engineering talents of Chicago-area middle school students at the annual Electric Car Competition this spring.

The quest: construct a fully functioning model electric car that could travel a 20-meter track while carrying a two-pound load. The task challenged students to apply the same science and engineering principles used by professional engineers every day.

Armed with an electric motor, a set of gears and a capacitor, small teams of 6th through 8th graders met with teachers during after-school sessions to begin construction starting in January. But very quickly it became apparent that in order for the teams to achieve their goals, communication and iteration would be paramount.

"We wrote down every idea, even the ‘bad ones,’ to impress upon them the idea that sometimes bad ideas spark good ones that wouldn’t have been thought of otherwise."

“We started the process with a number of whiteboard sketches to help the kids clearly communicate their ideas,” said Larry Monaco, a math and science teacher at Hubble Middle School in Warrenville. “We wrote down every idea, even the ‘bad ones,’ to impress upon them the idea that sometimes bad ideas spark good ones that wouldn’t have been thought of otherwise.”

The iterative process of making a series of test cars was key to giving the kids ownership over the design and construction of the car, teachers said.

With each new version, the student-led groups incorporated design changes and tested their outcomes. Some iterations worked and some didn’t.

Bill Hartford, teacher for the homeschool TAG Illinois, which won both the race and design competitions, said that the team went through ten different versions before arriving at their final car.

“Our wheels would fall off, the gears would come loose or we’d short the capacitor so that half of our runs wouldn’t even make it to the end,” said Hartford. “But based on all of that, we designed our final car to eliminate any errors, and so on the day of the race we would know that our car would go each time.”

Science is all about iterative design. “A scientific mindset involves looking at problems from multiple perspectives, developing a possible solution, testing that solution and learning from that process to make the next version of the solution better,” said Meridith Bruozas, manager of Educational Programs at Argonne National Laboratory. “It is competitions like this that help students see that science is about building on what you know and trying to make it better.”

On the day of the competition, held at the CNH Industrial headquarters in Burr Ridge on March 18 professional engineers interviewed the students on the rationale for their design choices. Next was the racing portion, where eleven teams raced their cars down the track in three heats; the fastest times determined placements in the final race.

“CNH Industrial has a long history of supporting educational programs like the Electrical Car Competition,” said Mary Jacque, manager of Design Analysis and Criteria Development at CNH Industrial. “Argonne has done a great job over the years in the different incarnations of this competition, and our mutual purpose has been served well – to educate middle school students in an atmosphere of competitive fun, teamwork and camaraderie.”

More information about the event is available online.

Additional participants this year included Jerling Junior High, Melody STEM school, Nicholson STEM Academy, Daniel Wright Jr High, Maple School, Islamic Foundation School, Eisenhower Jr High, Humphrey Middle School and Notre Dame Catholic School.

The Model Electric Car Competition is sponsored by CNH Industrial. Through its people and brands, CNH Industrial delivers power, technology and innovation to farmers, builders and drivers all around the world. The company comprises well-known brands in North America: Case IH and New Holland Agriculture for tractors and agricultural machinery; Case and New Holland Construction for earth moving equipment; and FPT Industrial for engines and transmissions.  For more information, please visit www.cnhindustrial.com.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, 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 the Office of Science website.