Middle schoolers race solar-powered cars to the future

Mark Viray, left, and Dominic Whitney of Central Middle School pose with their solar model car. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

HARRINGTON — Drag racing legend John Force doesn’t have anything on the dozens and dozens of middle school-aged students that participated in the 2019 Junior Solar Sprint model car competition at the Delaware State Fairgrounds on Thursday.

After all, Mr. Force and other NHRA drag racers can burn up to 15 gallons of nitromethane fuel during a single 1,000-foot run.

These students, a collection of boys and girls from 21 different schools throughout Delaware, raced their vehicles by utilizing the power of the sun – and there was plenty of that in the parking lot in front of Exhibit Hall at the fairgrounds in the event sponsored by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Mark Viray, an eighth-grader at Central Middle School in Dover, sees a future in developing vehicles that can harness the energy of the sun.

Mark Viray, left, and Dominic Whitney of Central Middle School watch their solar model car ride on the track during the Junior Solar Sprint model car competition at the Delaware State Fair Grounds in Harrington on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“Definitely,” he said, “especially with what’s going on right now with the media with Tesla and moving on and mass-producing electric cars. We have other car manufacturers like Porsche, and some others, moving to the electric car business. Solar-powered cars are probably going to go a long way ahead eventually when it comes to renewable energy.”

The small cars that the students had engineered for Thursday’s races came in all different kinds of shapes and sizes. Many were wedge-shaped, designed for aerodynamic purposes, but all of them were outfitted with small solar panels on their roofs.

They raced, and raced again, throughout several heat races that were held to determine the winning cars. Even Gov. John Carney swung by to get a glimpse of the competition.

Natalie Way, who works for the Capital School District’s 21st Century Programs at Central Middle, was out cheering the six members that made up the her school’s team.

“I am so excited. The guys are awesome,” Ms. Way said. “They came to me and they said, ‘Ms. Way, can we do this?,’ and I’m like, ‘Yep, go ahead and do it. They love anything electronics, engineering, robotics … We did this last year and they came back and said they want to do it again.”

Middle school students from across the state pose with Gov. John Carney during the 2019 Junior Solar Sprint model car competition at the Delaware State Fair Grounds in Harrington on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

It took them four months, and two cars, before the Central Middle students decided on a design that resembled a Porsche, according to Mark Viray.

“The Jaguar that we started a long time ago took two months to put together but the problem we had was we couldn’t really attach the solar panels, so we had to just scrap it and build a completely new car,” he said. “I think we came a long way from last year’s (solar car). We moved to actual 3-D stuff.

“I’m interested in engineering, but I came here just so I could build cars, honestly, because I love it. I don’t really care about racing, but more of the design look of it. When you see it completed if it looks like what it’s supposed to look like, that’s what makes you happy. That’s what makes you proud of your work.”

DNREC’s Division of Climate, Coastal, and Energy, together with the Delaware Technology Student Association, played host to 38 teams of middle school students representing 21 schools from across Delaware. Downstate was represented by schools from Camden, Dover, Georgetown, Lewes, Middletown and Milford.

“Junior Solar Sprint challenges students to think about ways that we can meet our future energy needs cleanly and securely,” said DNREC Secretary Shawn M. Garvin. “The best learning happens while students are having fun. They gain fond memories looking back and get career ideas looking forward.”

Students teamed up with their classmates to design and build solar-powered model cars, which they raced in a double-elimination competition. Awards were presented for speed, engineering and creative design.

The winning teams are eligible to compete in the national Junior Solar Sprint, sponsored by the Army Educational Outreach Program.

Jose Narciso-Bamaca, an eighth-grader at Central Middle, said even though his team didn’t win, it was still a great experience.”

“I think it’s a great opportunity to get engineering skills and just have a fun time,” he said. “I’m proud of it. I don’t think we moved on, but at least it worked.”

Mark Viray was happy his team decided to switch to the Porsche design. He said it wasn’t that difficult of a transition.

“It’s just very basic materials that we use,” he said. “We’ll have an X-ACTO knife in one hand and some foam board and you just look at photos of the car, draw it, and cut the pieces out. It’s cool because not only does it look good, but it works, too.”

For Ms. Way, Thursday’s solar car competition was somewhat bittersweet.

“It’s all them,” said Ms. Way. “I couldn’t tell you one thing about anything. They put it together and made it work. It’s great teamwork and effort.

“These young men have been together since elementary school and they’ve been working on different projects together. Next year, some of them will be going off to high school and leaving for different schools, but I’m excited for them. It’s great to see them all working together as a team.”

Competition results

Junior Solar Sprint model car competition at Delaware State Fairground in Harrington

All-around winners for combined speed, design, and presentation:

•1st place: Beacon Middle School, Car No. 5

•2nd place: Postlethwait Middle School, Car No. 32

•3rd place: Milford Central Academy, Car No. 27

Top five teams in time-trial races:

•1st place: Bayard Middle School, Car No. 3

•2nd place: Springer Middle School, Car No. 33

•3rd place: Alfred G. Waters Middle School, Car No. 1

•4th place: Postlethwait Middle School, Car No. 32

•5th place: P.S. DuPont Middle School, Car No. 31

Top five teams in creative design:

•1st place (tie): Central Middle School, Car No. 11 and Holy Cross, Car No. 22

•2nd place (tie): Conrad Schools of Science, Car No. 12 & The Jefferson School, Car No. 35

•3rd place: Holy Cross, Car No. 21


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