A group of our 14 middle school students were hard at work as a pit crew readying their entry for the ‘Lemons to LeMons’ endurance car race. 2017 marks the third year in a row that Blue Oak was accepted into the LeMons 24-hour endurance race held at the Sonoma Racetrack on March 25-26th.
It’s an intriguing and forward-thinking elective offered here at Blue Oak that allows our middle school students to explore physics, thermodynamics, friction, and get hands-on with the latest in racing safety technology. Alia Rogers, who participated in last year’s elective LeMons class, said “It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It was incredible to see the inside of what I ride in every day. You don’t think about how many components there are until you actually see them!”
This year, Blue Oak is excited to announce that the Napa County Sheriff’s Association will have a deputy join the team of drivers. Blue Oak teacher Greg Garrison, who also will pull double duty as he buckles in on race day, says “ Its projects like these that are the essence of progressive education.” He emphasizes, “This is the ultimate real-world hands-on learning experience!”
The 7th and 8th graders, both boys and girls, have fully dismantled several donated passenger cars to a bare shell with light instruction – and a safety lecture – from two school parents who have volunteered their time, Rich Olivier and Frank Dominguez, along with Blue Oak teacher Greg Garrison. In the process, they have developed a solid team approach. “During this phase, we begin to instill the importance of organized teamwork and practicing communication skills,” says Olivier.
The communication is vital specifically because they were required not to cut, break or tear anything in the dismantling process including, and most importantly, the wires. Seats, windows, carpet, heater and A/C, all ducting, doors, wheels and tires, all brakes and suspension, dashboard, gauges, steering column and much more gets removed, bagged and organized to be set aside for later use.
Once the students have the car stripped, they graph the car and help design the roll cage. They see how to fit over 80 feet of pipe inside a car and learn how suspension incorporates geometry and physics and how much energy it takes to stop a car. “They never look at a car the same way when they get dropped off at school,” says Olivier.
In order to compete, the students read the event’s rulebook, devise a formal car theme – this year it’s pi (3.14) and pie –, and submit a written plan and proposal to race officials for approval all before any of the hands-on work can take place. They were so enthusiastic that their proposal includes endearing wisdom as to why the hands-on approach has such a value: In the words of one student, “When you look at us as kids, you may not think that we could actually get under the hood of a car and fix the problem, but we will work tirelessly to make it the best we can. At our school, instead of taking out textbooks and filling in worksheets, we have the amazing opportunity to participate in activities like this that teach us all about cars from engines to gas, to roll cages and how to work as a team. It sets us free from the inside of a classroom to do some real world learning.”
When race day arrives, they still have a huge amount of work. Maintaining a car during race conditions takes resources, energy, and constant communication. They are required to take measurements and calculate timing for pit stops, tire wear, brake wear, gas consumption, and driver changes. Says Olivier, “Whether our car and drivers make it through the 24 hours, completing the race or not, the kids organically come together as a team to constantly solve problems. The enthusiasm these children have watching their car go around the track is incredible! It has been so rewarding to be a part of this hands-on learning-by-doing experience as it proves to be vital to all generations.”
“It’s our hope that through this experience the kids will always be excited about new and different challenges rather than intimidated,” says Blue Oak parent Frank Dominguez. “One of our key goals for the students who participate in the LeMons elective is for them to gain the confidence to believe that they can really do anything and see these challenges instead as opportunities.”
“The intent of the ‘Lemons to LeMons’ project isn’t to blossom young mechanics, but rather to provide hands-on experience of general mechanics – and all of the math and science that goes along with it,” says Olivier. “All in all,” he continues, “while the kids do learn a great deal about mechanics perhaps even more significant is their understanding of the importance of communication in group projects and the responsibility that goes along with a project of this nature. I can’t imagine a better way to create an impression on a middle schooler that gives him/her the gift of a lifetime love of learning.”