HARVARD — On a recent visit to Terri Monette’s class, her students were enthusiastically engaged in the culminating phase of a motion-in-design physics project they’d been working on for some time.
The middle of the floor was cleared, ready for action and marked off with tape. Leftover parts waited at workstations on an area rug. With the scientific basics on file and the build phase over, it was “show time” for these teams of two and three students and their trucks.
After experimenting with one of the hands-on “refined activities” offered in the brand-name science kits, they were ready for a trial run. The kits, donated by organizations such as the Harvard Schools Trust and the PTO over the years, are staples for the fifth-grade science program, Monette said.
Geared to a real-world scenario — delivering a payload on time to a Boston firm — the students’ inventive “trucks” had to travel across the floor in four seconds to land in a taped-off end zone, the delivery site. Nobody made it on the first few tries as several stopped short. That’s where things got tricky. Over-shoots would end up in the ocean, Monette cautioned.
One vehicle persistently went the wrong way, heading back to the launch area instead of forward to the finish line. Madeline Beckman and Loren Beal were determined to find out why and fix it. They tinkered. Lauren adjusted the elastic band, wrapping it tighter around the axle, with the aim of releasing the skeletal truck like a modified slingshot.
“OK, we figured out the problem,” Madeline said. They tried again but tied-together rubber bands separated. The truck inched backwards. The problem wasn’t solved before class time ended, but the designing pair tackled it cheerfully.
Jarred Revane and Justin Gordon fared better but were still short of the goal when the clock ran out. “It starts but only gets part-way,” about a third of the distance, one observed. After shedding pieces to lighten their truck, they zeroed in on power and upped the number of wrap-arounds.
The trial-and-error approach was repeated by other teams. Some trucks veered off course. Others rolled too far. Rory Wirch and Aidan Aciukewicz tried to trim their 5-second time.
The rubber-band powered vehicles, of varied shapes and sizes but within close parameters, were made of pieces similar to Legos or plastic erector sets, with wheels, gears and other vehicle-centric parts. They carried wooden blocks as cargo.
The final push was of the “ready, set, go” kind, but with several tries allowed before the experiment wrapped up. But this wasn’t about winners and losers; nor was it a contest. More like NASA engineers than NASCAR racers, they’d tried and learned in the process. “That’s what this is all about,” Monette said.
When it was over, the amateur engineers gathered in a circle to discuss results and responses. How did the process made them feel? Satisfied. Frustrated. Proud. Challenged. “Did you try your best?” the teacher asked. The answer was yes. “Then congratulate yourselves,” she said.