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Minds in motion

November 2, 2011

Later this month, Shivam Desai will coast 800 feet through downtown Lenoir while lying on his stomach in a wooden and metal car propelled by compressed air in a propane tank.

His physics teacher and his classmates will cheer him through the whole ride.

Desai and his honors physics classmates at Newton-Conover High School comprise one of at least six teams from Catawba County schools that will participate in the first Western North Carolina Gravity Games Soapbox Race.

"I want to be an engineer," said Desai, a senior. "So I was all game for this."

Google, which operates a data center in Lenoir, and Appalachian State University (ASU) are sponsoring the event to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in western North Carolina.

Participants will include teams from St. Stephens High School, Jacobs Fork Middle School, Hickory High School, Northview Middle School, Newton-Conover Middle School, NCHS and students from Avery, Caldwell and Watauga counties, according to a release from Google.

Jessica Faltermayer teaches the NCHS physics class and, along with her husband Jacob, supervises the students as they build their soapbox car for the race.

"Everything I teach has helped them understand this process in detail," Faltermayer said. "We started this car from scratch around early October. We were just provided the axle and steering column."

Faltermayer said school districts introduced the project to individual schools, and the school board provided funding for purchasing other materials to construct the cars.

"First, we had to do a lot of research," said Scott McLaughlin, a senior in the physics class. "We did a lot of math calculations."

McLaughlin said the class decided parameters including what shape to build the vessel, which materials to use for the wheels, how thin the wheels should be and how much weight the car will be able to carry.

"I'm a very hands-on learner," said senior Elena Swink. "You could tell me the falling rate is 9.8 (meters per second per second), but I'm not going to learn it until I see it.

Here, I can see it."

The body of the NCHS car is made of particle board and will be covered by metal. As is tradition for soapbox cars, no engines are allowed in the Lenoir race.

"The hardest thing is (Google) wanted a source of potential energy," Faltermayer said.

"We're using a propane tank with compressed air to propel the car down the hill."

Students will attach a motorcycle windshield to the front of the car, and foam will pad the inside of the car for the driver, Desai.

On Wednesday, students wielded drills and saws to cut holes for attaching the wheels to the frame of the car.

"We used Newton's laws to figure out the curvature on the back side of the car," Desai said. "We're planning to attach rubber to the wheels so friction will help stop the car coming down the hill."

The race will travel down a path with a 50-foot drop in elevation from the starting line to the finish line, Faltermayer said.

Adam Smith, an ASU professor, is mentoring the Catawba County teams as they build cars for the race that begins at 8:30 a.m. Nov. 19. Faltermayer said school teams will be awarded trophies for winning the race and for creativity in designing their cars.

"This process is going to stay with us," McLaughlin said. "I've never made anything like this in my life."

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