Teacher challenges students to build mousetrap-powered cars

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BANCROFT, Neb. (AP) — How would you react if you were asked to build a car powered only by a mousetrap?

Would you even know where to start? Those of us more mechanically challenged adults might look at it as an impossible task.

That's surely how some of T.J. Hilsinger's eighth-grade industrial technology students felt a couple of weeks ago when he announced their next project.

"The first day they all look at you with a blank stare thinking, how are we going to get a mousetrap to move a car?" said Hilsinger, the industrial technology teacher at Bancroft-Rosalie Public School.

The Sioux City Journal reports (http://bit.ly/16QOM8R ) that last week, those students' blank stares were replaced with a few proud smiles as they tested their mousetrap-powered vehicles in the high school gym.

The results varied, but each student came out of it with a new appreciation for basic machines, and learned a few lessons about trial and error. Students huddled around a table tinkering with their cars like a professional pit crew, each seeking an adjustment here or there to make their cars travel a few feet farther.

"Just little things helped," said Paige Peters, whose constant adjustments led to increasingly longer trips for her four-wheeled vehicle, which eventually traveled 33 feet.

Hilsinger wandered among them, offering a few helpful tips and lending a hand in repairs, but for the most part, the students were on their own. The point of Thursday and the whole project, he said, was to get students to think outside the box, figure out how to solve a problem and be creative.

"It just makes them think differently about things and seek all possible solutions," Hilsinger said after the testing. "That's great, getting them to make adjustments and learn from their mistakes."

The learning was obvious.

Some of the cars barely made it off the starting line on the first test. But with a little work, nearly every student got his or her car to travel at least a few feet, bringing satisfied smiles of accomplishment.

"Just the fact they designed something that does work, they get pretty excited about it," Hilsinger said. "My goal is not necessarily to have them make a car that goes really far, but it's important they make a car that works."

Devon Darnell's worked the best. His two-wheeled model, sporting wheels made from old Oak Ridge Boys and Juice Newton 45 records, traveled 71 feet, 3 inches. It wasn't near the all-time record of 110 feet, 8 inches, but he was satisfied with the result, especially given how daunting the task of building the car seemed at first.

"When I first heard about it, I had no idea. I had no way to approach it," Darnell said.

He looked for design ideas on the Internet, settling on the two-wheel approach because nearly everyone else in class was building four-wheeled cars.

Hilsinger places few requirements on his students. The vehicles must be made from scratch and no wheels from toy cars may be used. He said the project, and others like it, give the students in this nine-week exploratory class a basic understanding of simple machines: wheels and axles, pulleys, levers, gear ratios and how speed relates to torque.

Sometimes students can't get their car to move, but that doesn't mean a failing grade. At the project's conclusion, the students had to write reports on how they built their car, why it worked or why it didn't and what they might have done differently.

"I thought it was challenging. I liked being creative," Peters said after her last test run.

Consider it a lesson learned.

This AP Member Exchange was shared by the Sioux City Journal.

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