Science bowl challenges middle school students

Elizabeth Polsdofer

All eyes turn to the makeshift rubber track where two wooden cars are waiting patiently for coordinator Steve Karsjens to signal the start of the first race of the U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory Middle School Science Bowl.

The buzz of registration, excitement and final preparations has been replaced by a heavy silence in the atrium of the Molecular Biology Building as two months of hard work waits to be put to the test.

The two cars set off. One stopping after a few feet, the other stopping after a few inches. Anxious engineers move forward to nurse their cars: inspecting batteries, gears and wheels. With a sudden hiccup, one of the cars speeds off with a gentle chirp as the large atrium is overwhelmed with laughter and noise.

The Science Bowl is an academic competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory and is a celebration of students who have not yet graduated from high school.

The two-day event, which took place last weekend, required months of preparation and hard work studying physics, chemistry, materials sciences and engineering. The first day is dedicated to the model car challenge where students race cars powered by an alternative energy source.

“Alternative energy is what we look at. So it’s electric, so they kind of get an idea of what electric cars look like,” said Bob Mills, race coordinator.

Mills said the alternative energy sources students learn about change annually. In the past students have engineered cars to be run by solar power and hydrogen fuel cells.

“It’s a lesson in physics and engineering, and a little bit of art and design too,” Mills said.

Guided by their coaches, teams of four to five middle school students assembled cars partly with kits provided for the competition. The remaining materials needed to be purchased by the team to complete the car.

Joseph Brennan, a student from Stilwell Junior High School, cited the building of the battery-operated car to be a challenging, but a productive learning process.

“It was difficult at the beginning because we had never done it before, so we really didn’t know how to go about it,” Brennan said. “But then by the end we kind of knew what we were doing and it got easier.”

The Science Bowl competition is held annually in buildings at Iowa State University at both the high school and middle school levels. The winning team of the academic competition will move on to represent the state of Iowa at the national level in Washington D.C. in late April.

“I think it’s a great learning experience for the all kids, and for all of us volunteers too,” say Bob Mills. “Every year the cars are all different…and we learn something from the kids.”