SLHS physics students create mousetrap race cars, testing their engineering and math skills

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Who said mouse traps can be used only to catch little rodents? Storm Lake High School physics students turn the traps into race cars and then put them to the test by seeing how far they could travel.

Teacher Jay Grimes said the students have the opportunity to use engineering skills - building the cars from the ground up, using unlikely materials (the only manufactured materials allowed were the wheels and the mouse trap) along with their science skills - figuring out how the car would move after it was all put together - along with math skills.

Students created their own cars but encouraged each other and shared ideas.

CDs were the most popular choice for wheels; while Austin Patrick (who is a hunter), used the lids of gun cleaner for his wheels.

Axles holding the wheels varied.

Mai Yang and Claudia Martinez used pencils and Patrick used small dowels.

Some used blocks of wood to hold the mouse trap while others were more creative and used sheet medal to hold the mouse trap in place.

Many of the students used materials around their wheels to provide traction - balloon pieces were the most popular. Patrick used graphite.

The students have an entire set of rules that must be followed when constructing the cars; this is not a unique project to SLHS, Grimes said.

Some of these rules include:

* The car shall have a minimum of two wheels, and only wheels may be in contact with the testing surface at all times.

* The sole power source of the car shall be the mousetrap; only one string or wire may be attached for transmission of energy.

* The entire vehicle must not be bigger than 30 cm x 15 cm x 15 cm.

* Each car must incorporate a single standard laboratory 100-g mass in the construction.

While the students all wanted their cars to be fast, accuracy was what Mr. Grimes was looking for. The track was 750 cm; the students were graded on how close their cars came to that finish line (among other criteria).

Apparently, there are examples of mouse trap cars on line that many of the students got ideas from. And when they began testing them, many students went back to the drawing board.

This is the third year that Grimes has made the mousetrap racers part of his physics curriculum. The competition is held in the student center, which allows students who are studying there the chance to watch. This also gets those students interested in the project. Grimes is happy to say that this is the largest class of physics that he has had and he believes it is in part due to projects like this.

Grimes was pleased with the many finished products and the expertise the students put into the assignment.

"We have some good prospective engineers here I think," he said.

and expects some of them will qualify for the contest.

The University of Northern Iowa each year hosts a state-wide physics competition; Grimes expects some of the SLHS racers will qualify for the contest.

And for those cars not going on to compete - it's back to catch mice.

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