Learning as They Go

Article Published: Nov. 10, 2011 | Modified: Nov. 19, 2011
Learning as They Go

It’s all downhill from here.

Several Appalachian State University and Watauga High School students are putting the final touches on their motorless vehicles, which will descend a 0.2-mile hill in downtown Lenoir on Saturday, Nov. 19, for the Western North Carolina Gravity Games Soapbox Race.

The inaugural competition, co-sponsored by Google and ASU, will feature more than 30 cars in three divisions – middle school, high school and an open category that includes university, corporate or private teams. Watauga High School and ASU are among the teams to be represented in the race.

Since Google opened a data center in Lenoir in 2008, the technology company has worked to establish a relationship with the surrounding community through small grants and events. Earlier this year, officials at the center decided they wanted to do something that would accelerate its outreach efforts.

“We were trying to come up with an idea of an event we could do that was fun, that would have regional appeal, that would fit in with the theme of our data center, which happens to be NASCAR because of where we’re based, in proximity to the birthplace of NASCAR,” Enoch Moeller, operations manager for the data center, said.

The team decided a soapbox race was an appropriate choice. It wouldn’t be any old soapbox race, though. Google wanted to incorporate its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives into the event.

“It would be even more of a STEM challenge if we figure out a way to work in some sort of real engineering or design aspect,” Moeller said. “That’s where we came up with the idea of the potential energy systems for powering the racers.”

Traditional soapbox cars, once built out of soapbox crates and roller-skate wheels, move forward due solely to gravitational pull. Google’s soapbox race would have a technological twist – a provision allowing use of potential energy. Some of the teams would be allowed to use propulsion systems, such as springs, counterweights, elastic bands and flywheels, to help power their cars.

Because the race would have such a strong educational component, Google teamed with ASU to put on the event. Together, they planned and organized the Gravity Games and funded car kits for middle and high schools across seven Western North Carolina counties. Moeller said the students are very enthusiastic about the race.

“All the feedback I’ve gotten from the various schools and principals is that they are very excited about the competition, and they can’t wait to get out there and do the race,” he said.

Participants may be driven by speed or the opportunity to grab first place and possibly a Google Android tablet, but at the finish line, Google is hoping to have made a longer-lasting impact. They hope the event will fuel young people’s interest in STEM.

“We would very much like to be a part of helping to encourage future growth and development in technology, engineering, math and get kids excited about it and get them interested and, hopefully, be a source of encouragement for some kid that may be someday a founder of the next Google or a startup that turns into a great, thriving business like Google is today.”

The Western North Carolina Gravity Games Soapbox Race begins at 8:30 a.m. at the top of Church Street in downtown Lenior. The event is free and open to the public. The racers will follow a straight course to the intersection of Church Street and Harper Avenue.

For more information on the Western North Carolina Gravity Games Soapbox Race, including a map to the race site, visit http://www.ncgravitygames.com or call (828) 262-8475.

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