By David Rogers. April 29, 2018. LENOIR, NC — Think Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s with spectacles and a slide rule. Downtown Lenoir was turned into a three-ring STEM circus on Saturday, much to the delight of an estimated 5,000 student participants, parents, friends, and spectators on hand for the 8th Annual Gravity Games, a signature event of the North Carolina Science Festival.
STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, but it really stands for competitive F-U-N.
At the center of the Gravity Games is a good ol’ fashioned Soap Box Derby — but on steroids. More than 55 teams of students from all over North Carolina fielded entries in this year’s competition, in three different classes.
“This is so much fun,” Town of Lenoir Mayor Joe Gibbons smiled to Blowing Rock News. “And today is great because we have such beautiful weather.
The best part of this event is how much fun the kids have. They don’t just see it as math and science, but what you do with those subjects, the knowledge you gain and what it means to just about everything we do in life.
“This event has grown over the years,” he added. “We add new features every year so that now we not only have the Gravity Games, the soap box derby component, but we added Science Street a couple of years ago and now we have a spring festival. That’s a former race car of Joe Nemachek that you hear the motor racing. We have NASCAR simulator, some bungee jumping, a baseball throw to see how fast you can throw a ball and then some older cars, too, among other things.
“We are eight years into this now,” hizzoner continued. “We have a great partnership with Google, Appalachian State University, and the University of North Carolina Planetarium. There are so many people from Lenoir involved with this event and we are growing it every year.
“The best part of this event is the fun the kids have,” said Gibbons. “They don’t just see it as science and math, but what you do with those subjects, the knowledge that you gain and what it means to just about everything we do in life. What they are encouraging these student teams to do is to build an engineered car to race. They are learning a lot. Some people say science, and then say ‘That is kind of boring.’ Well, no it’s really not. It’s really a lot of fun.”
Science and math are about more than what you read in a textbook, sitting in a classroom.
Gibbons concluded his remarks to Blowing Rock News by saying, “As a town, we are really glad to be a part of the STEM initiative that this drives. When you look at the rankings of all the countries in the world and their kids’ proficiency in math and science, it is sad that the U.S. is ranked 25th in science and 41st in math by a recent study. When you think of all the technology and resources that we have here in the United States, we need to do better than that. We need to get our young people engaged. We’re looking for ways to make those subjects more appealing, and certainly events like the Gravity Games contribute to that mission.”
Enoch Moeller is an executive with Google, based in Lenoir, and one of the originators of Gravity Games.
“The idea for Gravity Games,” he recalled to Blowing Rock News, “came from a conversation I was having with a co-worker about how we could get our company more involved with the community and promote an interest in STEM subjects. Science and math are about more than what you read in a textbook, sitting in the classroom. Gravity Games is experiential learning at its best. Students are having fun while putting to work the concepts they have read about. All of us at Google are committed to this event because it is so gratifying to see the kids get excited about the things they are learning.”
There were several entries from Watauga County, including from two entries each from Bethel School and Cove Creek School, as well as one from Mabel. Long distance entries came from as far away as Weldon, NC, which is in Halifax County, north of Rocky Mount, as well as The Oakwood School, from Greenville, NC. Apex Friendship High School had three teams, including one with an innovative name, “Wheely Good Engineering.” Others included, “Asheville Slackers,” “Silver Bullet” and “Black Widow” (both from Boy Scouts Troop 263), “Warcolts” (Charles D. Owen Middle School, Swannanoa, NC), and “Fire Striker” (Daystar Christian Academy, Evart, MI).
Gravity Games is experiential learning at its best.
Google organizers likened the Gravity Games to NASCAR, but for young folks and, evidently, the origins of the professional racing circuit were not lost on team members from Hudson Middle School, which fielded an entry dubbed, “White Lightening.”
Olive Chapel Elementary (Apex, NC) fielded a team called, “Speed Sisters,” while Oak Hill Elementary from High Point went howling down the race track hill in “Majestic Wolf.”
Young Charlie Tolbert served as driver for two teams, including “The Hawk” from West Wilkes High School and another entry sponsored by Wilkes Communications. When asked what made him a good driver, he replied, “Well, that I don’t know. Instincts I guess.”
Blowing Rock News asked him what he was learning and he replied, “I have learned how to drive a car and use brakes, and build it.” Asked which is more important, steering or braking, he laughed and said without hesitation, “Probably braking.”
Cole Havner obviously had taken some lessons from NASCAR because he had a lot of decals on his car, some of which were sponsors. From Morganton, he was driving his own car. When asked by Blowing Rock News what makes him a special driver, he was quick to credit others. “My PawPaw helps me.” When asked what he was learning, he was pretty succinct: “A lot.”
If you ever want someone to explain to you what “sight fishing” is, just ask Alea Mitchell, of Taylorsville, representing Central Wilkes Middle School. Before climbing behind the wheel of her “Flying Falcons” team’s car, she described “sight fishing” to Blowing Rock News. “It’s where you drive around a lake or pond in a golf cart and you get points for spotting a fish in the water.”
A recent winner at the North Carolina Science Fair, Mitchell didn’t hesitate to explain why she was a good driver. “I’m tiny. I can sit down real low in the car and the air goes right by me, so I don’t offer too much wind resistance. Plus I’m light, so we can put more weight in the back of the car, which helps.” Asked which was more important, brakes or speed, she beamed, “Brakes. Safety first!”
We mentioned earlier that this was a three-ring STEM circus. One of the side rings was a long, street-wide tent called, appropriately, “Science Street,” where festival goer could discover all sorts of organizations related to the study of science, some even with interactive experiments for the spectators. A favorite was being able to play music on a computer by tapping a banana, celery stick or other objects because of the water content and its conductivity of electricity.
Brakes are more important. Safety first!
Lenoir Amateur Radio Operators were there, but they didn’t seem to be getting as much attention from Science Street visitors as other exhibitors. Thomas Land, Jr., one of the “ham” radio specialists on hand chuckled, “Kids do amateur radio a lot, but it is a little more complicated than going up there to use a banana to play music! But this is a great event to promote science and technology and, of course, the soap box derby is always a lot of fun.”
In addition to the science of speed, some of the students learned some other human lessons, too. Early in the time trials, about a third of the way down the course one car suffered an unknown mechanical failure and started veering to the left, crashing into and through the hay bales lining the length of the course.
Another young, female driver displayed her comedic instincts in making lemonade out of lemons when her left front axle broke when she dropped down the starting ramp and made contact with the street. Undismayed, she brought laughter to the crowd when she started pitter-pattering with her feet in front of the car to get down the hill, then injected some high octane laughter when she leaned over the side of the car to the left and started propelling the car with her hand, pushing along the pavement.
A featured division of this year’s Gravity Games was the Enhanced Engineering category. The students were awarded points not just for how fast the cars went, but also how light (removing weight) they made the car.