St. Mary’s students learning hands-on with STEM project

A student races another car in an exhibition run the Friday before their Nov. 17 and 18 race in Angleton.

The sixth-grade students at St. Mary’s Academy Charter School won first place with the electric race car they built this year, but it comes with a caveat.

“We were the only middle school that showed up,” said Ken Nagle, who headed the building of this race car by the students. “There are nine or 10 middle schools that have race cars that could have entered.”

The race was at the Texas Greenpower F24 Series at the Motor Speedway Resort Houston in Angleton Nov. 17 and 18. Three students were competing in the intermediate category.

Without competition in their own age group, these students took the track to compete with the high school students.

“We didn’t finish last,” Nagle said. Out of nine, they came in eighth.

The school’s fourth and fifth grade was also brought to the event but did not race. These students were given the opportunity for an exhibition run on the track.

These cars are part of the science, technology engineering and math initiatives at SMACS.

“There has a been a huge effort to get kids interested in STEM,” Nagel said. “Generally speaking, students don’t enroll in engineering and computer science.

“One of the primary reasons is they don’t feel like they are smart enough.”

There is a way to combat that trend, and it is with projects like this which also teaches them ways to apply the concepts being learned in real world applications.

There were hurdles, or challenges, to the project. Primarily, the students had to first learn to use ratchets, sockets and wrenches.

Then it was down to learning conversion methods for measurements, angles and physics to improve the aerodynamics (another point of discussion) of the car.

“This year we had close to 60 kids in fourth, fifth and sixth grades participating,” Nagle said.

Design and construction began at the start of this year with students meeting twice a week for an hour each time.

Two cars are being used for the three grade levels, with a third on the way and a fourth possible next year as the program expands.

“Nationwide there are 19 races every year,” Nagle said. “We can only feasibly go to the ones in Texas. That is two.”

Their next race is in Brownsville this April.

“Most of the cars are stock,” he said. “They all go the same speed.”

This means that the winners are the ones able to shave weight and wind resistance off their designs along with better driving techniques.

“On average, we were about two seconds a lap behind the high schoolers,” Nagle said.

This past race was 90 minutes long with students earning points for each lap they completed in that time.

Five sixth-grade SMACS students went but only three wanted to drive. Those drivers average about 22 mph on the 7/10-mile long track.

Nagle hopes to expand the program to the lower grades to begin the basics earlier, allowing for more advanced learning in the upper grade levels.

The other goal is to  expand this program into the classrooms of the other county schools as well.

“The school is working on a grant to bring these race cars to other schools in the area,” he said. “Then maybe we can have races here.”

Jason Collins is the editor at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 343-5221, or at media@mySouTex.com.