8th Grade Students Meet Rocket Scientist; Use Physics and Economics to Design Cars

The following was published in Tsai Hsing School’s bimonthly magazine as written by BGL:

Just a few years ago, self-driving cars seemed like science fiction. Now, Uber provides self-driving cars for public use in cities like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Google just announced their new fully-automated car company called Waymo. Given this recent progress, we can only imagine what cars of the future will be able to do.

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That’s exactly what Tsai Hsing’s 8th Grade Bilingual Program students did in the Car Design Project for their Distance Learning class. Students explored physics concepts while letting their imaginations run free to design automobiles with innovative features. Concepts that the students explored include acceleration, friction, traction, and aerodynamics. For each element of the car – from materials to fuel sources to shape – students worked in groups to apply what they learned to a design they felt would compete for automobile sales in a free market.

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At the start of the project, students interviewed a real-life aerospace engineer, John Morelli. As a Structural Analysis Engineer, Mr. Morelli tests other engineers’ designs to determine if they will be successful or not. Specifically, his team determines if a design will blow up! He explained how large teams of people work for a long time to engineer things like airplanes, missiles and rockets. Students were surprised to learn that his current project would take up to five years to complete, even with over 200 people working together!

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Students then designed their cars. Every student had a role in the group: Leader, Engineer, Writer and Artist. These roles are similar to what is required to design a product in the real world. The Leader made sure everyone else did their jobs. The Engineer became an expert in science and led the application of physics concepts to the design. Meanwhile, the Writer took notes and wrote the team’s plan. Finally, the Artist drew the car according to the Engineer’s design and created a model that would entice consumers to buy the car. Everyone then worked together on create a “Sales Pitch,” which is a presentation that salesmen give when they are trying to sell a product.

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Teams accounted for motor & fuel, frame materials, body type, and tires when making their design. Each car was rated in four areas: speed, safety, green (environmental impact), and cost. Like in real life, teams needed to prioritize one of these factors over others. For example, if students wanted a very fast car, they had to either choose an inexpensive conventional motor with bad environmental impact or an expensive electric or hybrid motor like the ones used by Tesla. If they wanted a green car, they needed to choose between slow, inexpensive engines and fast, expensive ones. If they wanted a safe car, the needed to choose between inexpensive but slow and heavy materials or one that are expensive but fast and light. And, they needed to make these decisions using their knowledge of science.

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For example, when examining material types, students had to apply their knowledge of chemistry to understand the difference between aluminum, steel, titanium and carbon fiber. While carbon fiber looks cool and is super strong, it’s very expensive. But some teams built it into their designs to make their cars safer, thinking that consumers would pay extra for the safety and fuel efficiency.

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An example of student work:

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For example, when examining material types, students had to apply their knowledge of chemistry to understand the difference between aluminum, steel, titanium and carbon fiber. While carbon fiber looks cool and is super strong, it’s very expensive. But some teams built it into their designs to make their cars safer, thinking that consumers would pay extra for the safety and fuel efficiency.

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To decide on a body type for the car, students learned about aerodynamics. Students understood intuitively that a sports car cuts through the air to go fast while a SUV sacrifices speed and beauty for safety (whereas a crossover tries to accomplish both!).

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Finally, while choosing tires, students considered both the materials as well as the type of traction. Although it may be fun to have the soft rubber sports tires, they wear out so quickly that they’re very expensive and bad for the environment.

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Near the end of the Car Design Projects, students went on a Field Trip Live to the California Science Center where they were able to direct Teacher Seth to exhibits that illustrate the physics concepts they used in their project. Students were able to see a comparison of types of materials, watch aerodynamics in action, and move a small solar powered car with the power of a light bulb. They used this new information to change or confirm their car designs.

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After visiting an exhibit about alternative fuel types, Teacher Seth answers Jacky’s question, “Can cars add wind power in the future?”

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Will asks David, “What is the coolest car you’ve ever seen?” David wows the class when he tells us about the exotic Pagoni car, which he once saw on the streets of Los Angeles. They can cost up to $4 million USD!

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The final step of the Car Design Project was the “Sales Pitch.” Each group prepared a presentation and had two minutes to convince their classmates that their car is the best. Each group chose an unique designed that was customized for a particular audience. In the end, Izzie, Wendy, Lauren and Tamia worked together to create the best car design. Congratulations! And a job well done to all of the hard working students in 801.

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