Earning Your Success Thru Smart Homework

Paul and Sidd had the good fortune of joining the venerable Scouting tradition known as the “Pinewood Derby” back in March:  transform a block of wood into a car body; decorate as you wish; nail on 4 wheels; race it down a glorified Hot Wheels track.

Before embarking with them on this little adventure, I came across “Physics and the Pinewood Derby” – a DVD of lessons by a physics professor who is a Souts dad.  It was a great $15 investment.  The boys walked away understanding some nuanced concepts in the context of speed such as: center of gravity, and design; rotational inertia, and using 3 vs. 4 wheels; how to check for good alignment and great tires.

This clearly narrowed our effort and over the course of a couple of weeks we created these svelte, 4.96 ounce (the limit is 5 oz) little dynamos.  Along with the build itself, the boys embraced the professor’s test mentality and made choices: notably Paul chose to have 1 front wheel slightly lifted off the track (lower rotational inertia), but Sidd felt this may make the car drift to one side and chose all 4 will be touching.

One small surprise was that neither cared to dress up the car with flames, numbers, etc.  “I just want a fast car, dad” is how Paul summed it up.  Sidd concurred.

The upshot:  out of about 40 cars, Paul’s racer, “Speedy Gonzales” came in 1st in all 8 heats, and 1st overall; Sidd’s “Typhoon” came in 1st in 5 heats, 2nd in 2 heats and 3rd in one very fast one, and 2nd overall.  A 1st and 3rd grader had beat out racers as old as the 6th grade.

When they announced the results, Paul was in particular surprised.  As the more introverted one, it was an unexpected feeling to be in the cheering and limelight among peers, and come to the front front to get his award.

I for one liked their observations and lessons: Both boys commented they were happy to see their brother win.  Both made predictions before the racing began about the various designs, looking thru the professor’s physics lens.  They also learned that how a heat “looks” matters less than the actual numbers in terms of race times.  And to a limited degree, they saw that when time permits it can be mighty useful to learn from the best before you start.

Turning up the heat at the district races… 

The boys went on to the district races in May and were very pumped up.  Now, throughout the build they had commented on winning and I shared that the the prep is what they control, but ultimately it does come down to luck, and the other cars. Most important is that walked away knowing they did as much as they could to make the fastest cars possible.  I also highlighted that the districts would see the best of the best compete and this would be far tougher.

Well, the district races were eye opening, and frankly, humbling.  Other cars won at the end of the day.  Sidd, who has a burning desire to “win”, was in particular was taken aback as he watched the race times and saw that Typhoon was not the top contender.  I wish I had photographed the shocked look on his face as Typhoon came in 2nd and 3rd in the heats.  Going to the districts was not as wildly fun as they had expected.  And being humbled is not the same as the candy of winning.  But I think they walked away understanding there are bigger arenas, and all the diligent prep is for contenders who may be elsewhere. 

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Speedy Gonzales in the Garage; Typhoon(#30), Copyright 2011, Abe Pachikara  (Click for larger images)

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Speedy Places 1st; Typhoon Places 1st, Copyright 2011, Abe Pachikara

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Speedy Stays Out in Front; Typhoon in Action, Copyright 2011, Abe Pachikara


The Race Crew, Copyright 2011, Abe Pachikara

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The Pack at the End of a Big Night, Copyright 2011, Abe Pachikara

US-2011-Redmond-DerbyRace-110315-165-1200px Stitch district

Firing Things Up at the District, Copyright 2011, Abe Pachikara

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  1. John Swensen November 21, 2011 at 3:33 am

    Mr. Pachikara, as one of the creators of Physics and the Pinewood derby, we love to hear stories like yours. Our entire intent of the video was to teach and motivate the youth to learn the science behind a fast car and then work their hardest to make it a reality. More often than not, even when they make their car as much as their age allows (rather than it becoming a dad competition), all the feedback points to the fact that the youth can make a competitive car. I am glad that it was a good experience for all of you.


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