When you hear the words “soap box derby” what do you envision? Like most people, you might picture a group of resourceful kids careening down the street in a homemade car crafted from a mishmash of materials like ironing boards, milk crates, and bicycle tires.
The Soap Box Derby originated humbly during the Great Depression of 1933 in Dayton, Ohio. Since then, the event has evolved into an international competition that attracts thousands of spectators and participants from all over the world.
Today, modern technology has certainly had an impact on how soapbox derby cars are built, with more advanced materials and techniques being used to create faster and more aerodynamic vehicles.
Whitehall-Yearling High School located in our hometown: Whitehall, Ohio, competes in an annual soap box derby competition, hosted by the All-American Soap Box Derby. By participating in this competition students develop a range of skills, including problem-solving, critical thinking, and teamwork. They gain hands-on experience applying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts, igniting a passion to pursue careers in STEM-based fields.
For the second year in a row, our mechanical engineers got in on the action. Martin Scarpitti, Adam Shank, and Ryan Wilber partnered with ten students and aimed to build on past success. With their combined forces, they built three soapbox derby cars to compete in the international competition in Akron. The students put their classroom knowledge to the test and showcased their creative skills in the competition!
The partnership’s two-fold goal is focused on building up the Whitehall, Ohio community through community involvement and sponsorship while enriching the lives and education of students through hands-on experience and mentorship.
Building a soap box derby car is no small feat! It requires a diverse range of skills and resources to produce a winning vehicle. By utilizing the expertise of our team’s building skills and engineering knowledge, the students received guidance and mentorship that helped them turn a pile of parts into functional cars.
Leveraging a prior partnership with the Whitehall schools, we gladly offered tools, workspace, and most importantly, mentorship and guidance to assist in building and adjusting the cars. The students utilized a variety of hand tools and their spatial and reasoning skills to follow instructions and solve problems, which is a testament to their ingenuity and resourcefulness. These skills are essential in many fields, and it’s great to see them being developed and honed through hands-on experiences.
One challenge of the building process was that the students were not allowed to use paint on the cars. After a student designed a logo for the side of the car, they had to come up with a way to apply it without using paint. We contacted Joe Barlette with Signarama-Reynoldsburg, and he offered to donate custom vinyl wraps for the cars. Joe even handled the application process himself to ensure the car looked its best on race day!
On April 8th, students gathered at Big Run Park on the west side of Columbus for a test run. The students had the opportunity to test their cars and learn how to keep the car straight while hurtling down the hill at high speeds. It was a true test of the driver’s skill in converting the car’s potential energy into straight-line motion, rather than relying on course correction, which often determines the race’s outcome.
After the initial test drive, the students analyzed their results and identified areas of improvement. They then reconvened to fine-tune their cars, making necessary tweaks, and optimizing their working order.
All three cars did well, winning all preliminary heat races, pushing them into the finals. Two out of the 3 the cars lost their final race by only fractions of a second and the third car placed 4th overall!
Building an awarding winning car is a great outcome, but it wasn’t the ultimate goal of this endeavor. Our main objective was to develop the confidence and life skills of the students who participated. Throughout the building process, the students gained a deeper understanding of how math and physics have practical applications beyond the classroom. They saw firsthand how these concepts could be applied to real-world situations and were encouraged to use creative thinking to solve problems.
In addition, the students learned the importance of teamwork and how to effectively work together towards a shared objective, while assigning tasks and setting milestones. The Soap Box Derby Association reports that many former racers attribute their participation in the races to helping them choose a career path. With most of the team members only a year or two away from selecting a college major or starting their first job, the exposure to potential careers that utilize their creativity and passion for science, such as the design engineering work that we perform daily, could be essential in their career decision-making process.
Overall, this project is a great example of how community involvement and hands-on learning experiences can have a positive impact on individuals and communities alike. Regardless of the outcome of the competition, the real success lies in the bonds that were formed, the skills that were developed, and the sense of accomplishment that was achieved.