West Tisbury student Molly Houghton knelt on the floor of the gymnasium of the Boys’ and Girls’ Club in Edgartown, head tilted to the side and nose less than an inch from the tiny solar-powered car in front of her. She checked the gears and wheels of the car, which she and classmate Addison Geiger had built from scratch, one last time. Everything needed to be perfect.
Molly and Addison were two of 219 fifth and sixth-grade students who gathered in the gym Saturday morning to participate in a solar car derby. For the second year in a row, irony seemed to be the initial winner of the derby, as heavy rains forced the event indoors. In keeping with their alternative energy nature, however, the cars are equipped to run on multiple power sources. Some quick adjustments — the addition of a nine-volt battery to each vehicle — allowed the races to go off without a hitch.
The solar car derby is the culmination of several weeks of construction work — and a far longer educational process. Kara Gelinas, education coordinator for the Vineyard Energy Project, spends the school year visiting classrooms around the Island and teaching children the principles of energy. Younger grades delve into the basics of energy production. Older students learn about renewable energy sources and apply their new knowledge to the solar car project.
That knowledge was being tested in the room just off the gym, where teams of racers met with panels of judges — three judges for each Island school — for interviews. George Hartman of West Tisbury, a former professor of engineering, looked over the mechanical components of cars built by Chilmark and charter school students while panelmate Paul Pimentel, a mechanical engineer from Edgartown, quizzed the teams on the technical aspects of solar power.
“It’s amazing to me how much these kids know,” said Mr. Pimentel. “Most adults don’t know how solar panels work.”
Though teams could win prizes based on how well they did in the interviews, the real excitement came from the races themselves. Ms. Gelinas oversaw each heat, helping out students and making sure each car was lined up in place before calling out the magic words.
“On your mark . . . get set . . . go!”
While some cars went off with no trouble at all, others stalled at the starting line. The cars moved along a thin guideline of fishing reel, and even the small factor of having the line pulled too tightly could cause problems.
Molly’s early attention to detail, however, paid off in the West Tisbury races. Her team’s car came in second; Wyatt Jenkinson was the first-place winner. She and Addison said the reason they had done so well was because of “good aerodynamics.” They had also chosen to use thin front tires and thick back tires, which, said Addison, cut down on friction while racing.
Derby winners and runners-up were awarded with ribbons and prizes during individual school assemblies on Monday.
The thrill of racing lasted only an hour, but Mr. Pimentel is optimistic about the long-term effects of such a project.
“I think it’s a really great way to build awareness of alternative energy,” he said, adding that in 10 or 12 years, “the whole population will be better educated.”