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Rowland Hall students take wild ride on gravity cars

Published October 3, 2012 3:41 pm

Education • Sophomores at the private school built and raced their own gravity cars within a five-hour time frame.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sophomores at Rowland Hall got to know the wild side of physics when their teachers surprised them with a one-day, beyond-the-classroom project: building gravity cars.

"It's a car that has no motor, no brakes, primitive steering and that's all to take you down the hill," said art teacher Gary Lindemann, adding gravity is the project's motor and enthusiasm is the fuel.

As students studied their cars gaining kinetic energy while speeding down a sidewalk near their school, the exercise taught them about gravity and physics.

Lindemann, along with his student stage crew, tested different gravity-car prototypes over the summer. After picking a model to roll with, the group created a 10-step instruction manual for creating the cars. Last week, groups of four or five students were tasked with creating their own vehicles.

Until the day of the project, details of the exercise were kept a guarded secret from the 10th-graders.

"The only thing they knew coming in there this morning was this was about gravity," said Principal Lee Thomsen.

The day began with a science lesson on gravity. After the project was revealed, the students had exactly four hours and 15 minutes to design and build cars before practice runs began.

One group decided to throw the instruction manual to the wayside.

Instead of creating a car with a high back to sit up against like all the other teams, they created a car with no back so they could lie on their stomachs.

That decision turned out to be a good one, said 15-year-old Jess Sterrett. In the upright cars, the center of gravity isn't strong and it feels as if you're on two wheels, she said. Their design was more stable and the steering wasn't out of control.

"When we're [lying] down, you don't go anywhere, you don't feel like you're gonna tip over," Jess said.

Other groups weren't so lucky.

"It's scary, you don't have any brakes on these things so it's very hard to control when you're going at a very fast rate," said Josh Cole, 15, who crashed not once, but twice in his gravity car, resulting in scraped knees and a cut ankle.

Josh's favorite part of the day was his first ride — the time he didn't crash — down the sidewalk bordering 800 South at Rowland Hall.

"Even though everybody crashed, it was fun and we had a good time. Nobody got seriously injured. Nobody broke an arm," he said.

Another student who crashed and flipped his gravity car, Shabir Aminzada, learned a valuable lesson: "Little weird cars made of wood do not go very fast without tipping."

But students also learned that they can accomplish a lot when they're on their own, Lindemann said.

That's the lesson that Jess will take away from the day.

"You can discover things yourself really easily," she said. "We kind of found out how to go on our own route and succeed."

jmccandless@sltrib.com