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Fox Lane’s Physics Grand Prix Unites First-Year Physics Students

Nina Vita poses with her rubber band car

Fox Lane High School recently held its annual Physics Grand Prix, a beloved tradition that started in 2005. Approximately 160 first-year physics students took part, all aiming to design a car that travels at least 16 meters powered by one #64 rubber band. Each car got three tries to reach the goal.

“The Physics Grand Prix is a project where students build and test rubber band-powered cars with a design objective of maximum distance,” explained physics teacher Salvatore Tatto, who ran the races along with teachers Jim Doller and Jerry Ludwig. “As students work through this challenging project, they integrate all of the different parts of the engineering design process including brainstorming, designing, building, evaluating, and revising to arrive at a solution that meets the goal of the project.”

The work does not just stop with the design process, however.

“Students are also required to analyze the energy transfers related to the car’s release and subsequent movement,” Ludwig said. “Post-performance day, students measure both the rubber band’s potential energy and its rolling kinetic energy. The design, build, performance day and post-analytical work are then organized into a written report or a well thought out video report that is submitted in addition to the completion of the car itself.”

The day of the races, students lined the wide, sunlit hallway, watching excitedly and cheering their friends on as small rubber band-powered cars inched down a makeshift track. Between trials, students talked through some of their design challenges and tried to help one another improve their cars.

“What am I doing wrong?” one student asked her peers. “The wheels keep spinning.” Another student told her that she might need some added weight.

Throughout the event, teachers offered words of encouragement when students struggled with adversity.

“Think positive! There’s still time,” was Ludwig’s regular refrain.

Nina Vita’s car was small and started out slow. At first glance, it seemed like her car would not go far. But Nina was not at all surprised that it ended up going 26 meters.

“I expected it to go further, actually,” she said. “When I did trials, it got to 30 meters. I built a transmission so that it conserves potential energy and doesn’t use it all at once.”

Her car went on to be one of the Engineering Design winners.

“Open-ended challenges like the rubber band-powered car have no single right answer,” Tatto said. “Students manage their own time, apply what they know, learn new concepts, learn to work efficiently with a partner and are inspired to come up with their own solutions.”

Watching the event, it was obvious that it is a special one for students and teachers alike. It is a great bonding event for the entire Fox Lane physics community.

“Over the course of several months, the discussions about the race start as a whisper,” Ludwig said. “But as the day draws closer, the students get more excited and more anxious. Students are in our hallway or classrooms before, during and after school building prototypes, testing their cars and sharing ideas without the typical boundary statement of whose class they are in. They are all in physics and it binds everyone together.”

Ludwig said the bonding experience is one of his favorite parts of the event.

“But I would be remiss if I didn’t state that I am always very happy when a car performs better than expected,” he added. “Or when a car just clears the 16-meter line and we see pure joy. That’s a good memory.”

See the list of this year’s winners below!

Maximum Distance winners:

  • 1st place: Preston Marcus/Sam Griff - 39.10m
  • 2nd place: Miko Drouot - 35.63m
  • 3rd place: Sydney Hurwitz/Joe Malichio - 34.40m
  • 4th place: Tyler Renz/Chase Meztger - 30.48m

Engineering Design winners (in no particular order):

This achievement is earned when a car’s engineering design is unique and/or the car is built with extraordinary precision. These cars have transmissions, methods to reduce friction, ability to steer, parts cut using a laser cutter or made from a 3D printer, etc.

  • Nina Vita
  • Ewan MacDonald/Brendan Morgan
  • Saer Sicignano
  • Sienna Collado,
  • Eoin Byrne/Seamus Noone

Best in Show winners (in no particular order):

This category is for cars that have an artful thematic quality. Not only does the car function and meet the minimum level of achievement, but the students took the time to thematically decorate it. 

  • Sela Safo/Noreen Malec
  • Sonya Popovic/Charles Kalarchian
  • Julia Catanese/Joshua Harwitz
  • Riya Bino/Emmet Gillespie
 students watch on as a peer's car goes down the racetrack