Revved-up cars get students 'on track' for STEM careers
By Don Sergent Bowling Green Daily News - May 18, 2018
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) — It wasn't the 110-octane fuel or the race car suspension that captured the attention of sixth-grader Finn Alcott at Bowling Green Junior High School.
Sure, having his tympanic membrane rattled when the 1980 Corvette's 750-horsepower engine roared to life was cool and all, but Alcott was more interested in the sports car's sleek lines.
"I'm more into engineering," Alcott said. "I had a collection of Hot Wheels cars when I was younger, and I always liked this one car that went faster than the others. What it was was aerodynamics."
That a sixth-grader is even using such scientific terms serves as proof that this past Wednesday's On Track event is serving the purpose envisioned by the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce and Western Kentucky University's SKyTeach program.
No drag on learning here.
As the culmination of the On Track curriculum developed by SKyTeach and taught in Bowling Green and Warren County middle schools, the sports cars rebuilt by Warren County Area Technology Center and Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College students were on display at BGJHS.
The 1980 Corvette rebuilt by the ATC students who attend local high schools and the 1994 Camaro worked on by SKyCTC automotive technology students have made the rounds of local middle schools, and they're more than props.
"You don't really understand science until you understand how it works in the real world," said Rico Tyler, professional-in-residence at WKU's SKyTeach program.
SKyTeach was created 10 years ago as a way to foster such understanding by helping students pursue careers in math and science education. Tyler said he was approached by chamber of commerce Education and Workforce Director Sandra Baker nearly two years ago about developing a curriculum that would tie in with the car rebuilds being done at the ATC and SKyCTC.
"Sandra approached us about doing a set of lessons that incorporate an actual race car," Tyler said. "We wanted a lesson where the car was fundamentally part of the lesson and would let them understand how modern car technology works."
Tyler accomplished that by using a device called an accelerometer that could be incorporated into two days of lessons about physics and motion.
"One of the standards we talk about is motion," said Meghan Basham, a BGJHS science teacher. "We used the accelerometer, a type of motion detector, and SKyTeach gave us the lesson plans for the two days leading up to the cars coming."
The cars were the star of the show Wednesday, but they're only part of a broader workforce development initiative spearheaded by Baker at the chamber of commerce.
"It's a way of bringing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education into the middle schools," Baker said of On Track.
The strategy is resonating with students like BGJHS sixth-grader Breece Bryant.
"I've learned about the technology that goes into cars," said Bryant, who said the STEM emphasis has her considering a career as an engineer. "I look at how the students built these cars, and it's amazing. You wouldn't think a kid would be able to do it, but they can."
On Track, by affording that opportunity to rebuild sports cars, has supercharged the auto technology program at the Warren County ATC, according to the school's automotive instructor.
"I've been teaching 21 years, and this is the most exciting thing for getting students interested," said Michael Emberton.
On-site at BGJHS Wednesday, Emberton said he hopes some of those sixth-graders may be his students in the future.
"Several of them were really interested," he said. "If we get them at an early age, stuff like this sparks that interest."
It did for Alcott, who can see himself graduating from those Hot Wheels cars to working on the real thing.
"Engines interest me, and seeing these cars inspires me," he said. "I'm not that far away from high school. When I get there, I might want to get involved in this."
If Baker has her way, the On Track program will be bigger and better by then. She said the visits to the middle schools reached more than 1,000 students this year, more than doubling the total from last year's inaugural program.
"The plan is to expand this and offer it throughout the 10-county region," Baker said. "The goal is to expose more middle school kids to STEM futures."
The cars themselves may help ensure that On Track continues to grow. In the program's first year, the two donated cars competed in the Holley LS Fest at Beech Bend Raceway and were later auctioned at the Mecum auto auction held in Indianapolis last May, with the $74,000 they brought being pumped back into On Track.