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Junior Solar Sprint Goes Virtual During Distance Learning

For members of DeWitt Middle School’s chapter of Technology Student Association (TSA), springtime means gearing up for one of the club’s competition activities, the Junior Solar Sprint. But with the extended school closure, TSA members focused this year on bringing the hands-on solar car building project to middle schoolers at home.

Junior Solar Sprint (JSS) is an engaging way to integrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education with problem-solving skills and creativity. The project involves designing and building a fast, solar-powered car and racing it along a 20-meter course. TSA members typically design their cars and race them at competitions.

But with distance learning in effect and those competitions canceled due to COVID-19, TSA members and their adviser, DeWitt technology teacher David Buchner, worked with several organizations to take the JSS project virtual. “They can’t come to the classroom,” Buchner said. “So the idea was, let’s bring the classroom to them.”
DeWitt TSA officer Annalise
Thompson solders together a
Junior Solar Sprint kit.

The club procured over 200 JSS kits through TSA’s national organization and the Army Education Opportunity Program (AEOP), a longtime JSS supporter. Buchner also secured a grant of over $600 from Pitsco Education for additional parts and a $500 grant from the Ithaca Public Education Initiative (IPEI) for safety goggles and cold-melt glue guns that could be distributed to participants.

Buchner delivered kits, wire, soldering irons and solder, safety glasses, and other tools to TSA officers, who soldered together the motor and solar panel in each kit. From there, the kits were distributed to any student who wanted one – and even some teachers who joined in on the fun. TSA members created videos, a website and other instructional materials to coach their peers through building the cars, and they and Buchner offered regular support to students via Google Meet.

JSS is a challenging, but fun way to engage students during the extended school closure, Buchner said. It’s also a break from computer-driven distance learning and is accessible to even beginner builders. Other than the kit, students can use any materials they like to build the car – the only necessities are scissors, cardboard and a glue gun. Some students stuck to those materials, while others used household items like bottles and pen tubes. One student even designed and 3D-printed parts. Builders also had the choice of two different gear sizes, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.

TSA students said they learned a lot both by building the cars and by teaching their peers how to build them. JSS teaches independent learning, exposes students to STEM principles and their real-world applications, and helps builders learn problem-solving and communication skills.

Students who built a JSS car will have the opportunity to race it from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, June 26. Pre-registration is required. All racers will receive a certificate, and some will receive additional awards for speed and creativity.

Some examples of student cars built during this spring's Junior Solar Sprint project!