No Arts and Crafts Here — Campers Build a Solar Car

Posted: July 20, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: February 5, 2010 at 10:32 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

student teacher, Penny Toro, with Chanida Lerdritsomboon during a lesson on weight and aerodynamics. Creative Services photo

Student teacher Penny Toro with camper Chanida Lerdritsomboon during a lesson on weight and aerodynamics. Creative Services photo

Forget summer camp crafts involving Popsicle sticks and papier-mâché. Campers at Mason’s Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology built solar cars and raced them this summer.

Each year since 1997, CREST has been offering two-week-long day camps with hands-on laboratory and field experience for youngsters.

This year, the theme was Motor Mania, and campers in fifth, sixth and seventh grade investigated automotive engineering and safety. What that really means is they got to design, build, test and then race model cars under various conditions on a variety of terrains.

But the campers weren’t the only ones learning something. The CREST camps are taught by graduate students in the College of Education and Human Development summer course, Science Methods for the Elementary Classroom.

The 20 aspiring teachers enrolled in Science Methods developed the topic and curriculum for the camp as part of their course work, and then took turns teaching the components. The teaching groups covered topics such as aerodynamics, safety, energy sources and terrain and weather conditions.

This was Mollianne Logerwell’s second year teaching the course and directing the camp.

“As a graduate research assistant for CREST, I worked on the research aspects of camp and quickly saw what a beneficial program it was for both the teachers and students,” says Logerwell, who earned a PhD in Science Education Leadership in May.

Logerwell came to believe so strongly in the camp experience that she wrote her dissertation on the effects of teaching at camp on the preservice teachers.

As camp director as well as instructor, Logerwell and her co-director Liz Bayard, a current doctoral student in the Science Education Leadership program, supervised the future elementary school teachers and modeled science teaching methods as needed. For some of the future teachers, it was their first time actually working with students.

“It is such a rewarding experience to watch the transformation in the preservice teachers over such a short period of time,” says Logerwell.

“In the beginning, they are nervous about teaching and uncertain of their science knowledge. By the end, however, they are full of enthusiasm and confident in their ability to teach science.”

For the campers, “We try to teach science that is also useful for life,” says CREST associate director Wendy Frazier, who teaches elementary science methods and has directed past camps.

“When students understand the meaning behind the science concept or the technology, they retain the information better and can apply it in a variety of ways.”

Thus, camp discussions went beyond automobile and engine design to include content on traffic, pollution and safety, among other topics.

A solar car built by one of the campers. Creative Services photo

A solar car built by one of the campers. Creative Services photo

Another goal of the camp is to demystify the college experience and expose campers and their families to college life, says Donna Sterling, who directs CREST and originated the idea of using summer camps as a training experience for teachers.

This crop of campers took tours of the Fairfax Campus, ate lunch in the Johnson Center food court and visited Zafer Boybeyi, who directs Mason’s Comprehensive Atmospheric Modeling Program, in his lab.

“The kids were riveted,” says student teacher Kris Fechter, who is working on a master’s degree in education. “They came up with the most phenomenal questions.”

During the two weeks, students worked individually and in groups to build a variety of cars to meet the challenge of the day. They also broke up into teams and built an “ultimate” vehicle, which they raced on the last day on an obstacle course that incorporated all of the daily challenges.

Fechter says the curriculum was designed so that the students could build upon concepts as they learned them and so continue to modify their cars.

“Building the final car really brought together all the things they learned over the two weeks,” he says. “They used all their knowledge and had fun doing it.”

“We learn how to make cars fast,” says Kevin Salinsky, a seventh-grader at Frost Middle School. He didn’t have time to go into more detail as he was still fine-tuning his design on the final race day.

“It was really fun,” says Tyler Liebl who attends Sandusky Middle School in Lynchburg. His father, Randy Liebl, adds, “He had a blast. He talks about the camp all the time.”

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu