Skip to main content
Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

The race for young scientific minds

A team of five students from Hubble Middle School foresaw success. It was early on a Saturday morning in mid-March and the team had just sat down with Luis Giron, a CNH Industrial software engineer and design judge for the annual Electric Car Competition. The team placed the plastic driver backwards in their low-slung car, they told Giron, so he could look at the other cars as he crossed the finish line first.

Cheers erupted two hours later in a vast warehouse west of Chicago as five teams of middle schoolers raced in the final heat. More than 80 students, teachers and parents stood on the sidelines, rooting for the teams as Hubble’s car zipped down the 40-foot track to win the race.

Students get a chance to practice their engineering skills, with an opportunity to continue to move forward with more exploration.” — Jessica Dietzel, Argonne’s education outreach lead

The event was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory as well as CNH Industrial, which hosted the students in Burr Ridge, Illinois.

Like all athletes, these sixth- to eighth-grade students spent months preparing for the competition, which offers prizes for both speed and design. (Hubble won both.)

After the design contest, middle-school teams raced their electric cars in three heats. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

We started just after Thanksgiving and 30 students tried out this year,” said Robin Dombeck, an eighth-grade science teacher at Maple School. To accommodate her students’ demand, Dombeck coached two teams — one for the event and a larger challenger” team, both of which designed and built cars.

The challenge was formidable: Each team must construct an electric car that can drive an 800-gram (1.8 pound) weight 40 feet in a straight line. To do so, the teams receive only an electric motor, a set of gears, a capacitor and a strict $20 budget for extras.

It’s predominantly an engineering and design competition,” said Jessica Dietzel, Argonne’s education outreach lead. Students get a chance to practice their engineering skills, with an opportunity to continue to move forward with more exploration. They get inspired by looking at each other’s work. They also get to meet and talk with professional engineers.”

The day starts with the design contest, in which engineers from CNH Industrial, led by Ivan Tate, quiz each team about their car in five areas: technology, innovation, craftsmanship, team knowledge and documentation. At this stage, the judges ask a barrage of questions, including:

  • Did you experiment with different gear and wheel combinations?
  • Did you test how long the capacitor can last?
  • Why did you put more weight on the front (or back) of the car?
  • How did you make the chassis?

CNH Industrial has always supported educational programs,” said Mary Jacque, manager of CNH’s Design Analysis & Simulation: FEA and Transmissions department. The Electric Car Competition is a perfect forum to foster teamsmanship, innovative thinking and friendly competition. I believe that the students do learn these traits in addition to engineering principles, while having fun building and racing cars.”

The Hubble Middle School team won both the design and race awards at the annual Electric Car Competition, co-sponsored by Argonne and CNH Industrial, on March 17. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

When the races began, the crowd noticed some eclectic designs. Daniel Wright Junior High School glued a mayonnaise bottle to their car. Notre Dame Catholic School, which was proud of its sustainable approach, stuck rocks to their car for a rustic” look, said team coach Sharon Yee. And several cars sported used CDs as wheels, a tactic that led to mixed results.

The students remained optimistic throughout the race. I feel that our work is paying off,” said Élan Schoenfeld, a seventh-grader at Maple School, just before the final heat. We are getting better every year.”

The quest requires ingenuity, patience and collaboration. They have to work together,” said Dietzel. They also have to learn how to problem solve on the spot.”

To help her team, Dombeck held after-school clinics led by high schoolers who competed as middle schoolers. One of my student coaches is planning to enter an engineering program at Yale. She told me that if it wasn’t for the [annual Electric Car Competition], she would not believe she could be an engineer,” said Dombeck.

Meridith Bruozas, manager of Argonne’s Educational Programs, is proud of the event’s inspirational nature. By competing today, students realize that science is iterative. You add to what you know and improve it. They also get an opportunity to see themselves as engineers and scientists.”

Additional participants this year included Sycamore Middle School, Peacock Middle school, Notre Dame Catholic School, Daniel Wright Junior High School, Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy, Prairie Hills Junior High and Oak Lawn Hometown Middle School.

Winners for the design contest were:

  • Hubble Middle School – 1st place
  • Islamic Foundation School – 2nd place
  • Maple School – 3rd place

Race winners were:

  • Hubble Middle School – 1st place
  • Maple School – 2nd place
  • Islamic Foundation School – 3rd place

Argonne National Laboratory also held a separate Electric Car Competition for students in the city of Chicago on April 8. That event was held in downtown Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry.

The 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​.cnhin​dus​tri​al​.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.