Roxbury High Students Design Tiny Alternative Energy Race Car

by Ricki Demarest

An unprecedented use of balsa wood, four wheels and a little water recently propelled a pair of Roxbury High School seniors into the future of automotive design. Physics and Tech classmates Kyle Brunner and Joe Holman built their tiny car during class time to compete in the Trans Options Hydrogen Fuel Cell Challenge.  The little racer blasted past 34 others to win fifth place in the contest at New Providence Middle School, the best a Roxbury team has done since entering the alternative energy competition three years ago.

Physics and Tech is an elective class at RHS. Michael Gottfried and Ryan Gibson co-teach and mentor the students while they concentrate on building their cars as part of their unit on Newton’s Laws and Motion. Gottfried recently explained exactly what a hydrogen fuel cell is.

“A Hydrogen Fuel Cell holds water in a small blue cell.  Students charge the cell by sending an electrical current into the cell, which splits water (H2O) into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas.  Each gas is captured in a syringe attached to the fuel cells,” he explained.  During a race, the students must connect the fuel cells to their car’s motor. The gasses re-combine to form water, which releases energy that powers the car.  

Students started work on their vehicles weeks ago, Gottfried explained, using anything from plastic bottles to tissue boxes. Developing a car with many working parts is difficult and requires many failures (and starting from scratch) for most students,” Gottfried noted. “Very rarely do projects work on the first or second attempt. The key is to build a car that reduces friction and mass as much as possible, which our winning team was able to do well.” 

During the final weeks before the competition, the P and T cars sped down the high school’s hallways. The teams conducted time trials and tweaked their designs before selecting the two fastest vehicles for the challenge.

On race day, the teams submitted their design portfolio outlining the cars concept, blueprint and other comments, then waited for the competition to begin. “The crowd consists of the competitors” Gottfried explained,” there are no spectators at the event for security reasons, since it is held in the Middle School.  Students typically cheer on their classmates as each race takes place.  Between heats, students are hard at work making modifications to the cars.”   

New Providence Middle School has hosted the event since 2007. Interest has mushroomed as the focus on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum has deepened across the state and the nation according to Denise Glenn, Roxbury’s Science Supervisor for 6-12th grades. “We are expanding our STEAM program throughout the district. Initially, it was very daunting to participate and compete against schools that have been competing and designing for years,” Glenn said.” I am very proud of our students and their efforts.  More importantly, I am proud of their team spirit and sportsmanship.  Our students receive compliments on their behavior and how thoughtful & respectful they are. Every year I receive feedback on how great our students behave and help other teams out.”

As a mentor, Gottfried said he had seen that competitions such as the Challenge offer his students a way to be successful outside the traditional classroom. Gottfried said he and Ryan notice how much the time spent at the challenge sparks more creativity.  “We are continually open to new ideas to grow and strengthen our STEAM curriculum to give our students more real-world experiences.  Our students gain a lot by collaborating with other schools, and seeing other designs at the competition,” he said.  “This especially shows when students write their conclusions and reflections at the end of the project.”

  The Roxbury School District will be hosting its own STEAM Expo on March 9th at Eisenhower Middle School. Stepping back and taking a larger view of the program, Glenn said she is looking forward to the event. “Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math are all around us. The only requirement needed is curiosity. We are naturally curious, constantly observing, seeking solutions, asking how things happened, and creating ways to solve problems. It is natural for humankind to make sense of what they see, and this is especially true of children. While science can’t provide all the answers, it has the ability to assist us in making informed decisions.”

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