Hand-built vehicles will soon barrel down the 25-degree, 450-foot hill on Macon's Magnolia Street, some hitting speeds as fast as 25 mph.
The primitive braking and steering systems will offer some control, but science is largely what the teen drivers will use to cross the finish line.
Macon's annual Magnolia Soap Box Derby returns Saturday, kicking off at 10 a.m. with the high school Gravity Racing Challenge. Adults compete separately in the shade tree and professional divisions, children ages 4-8 can participate in the Big Wheel Race, and the pop-up STEM Zone is geared toward ages 9-14. The races happen next to Washington Park.
The Gravity Racing Challenge — themed around science, technology, engineering and math concepts — began four years ago. With grant funding, Magnolia Soap Box Derby organizers have been able to gradually give out car-building kits to interested schools and after-school programs, said Chris Tsavatewa, a former executive director. Once a group gets a car, its theirs to keep, reuse and modify for future races.
"We knew it would be a great real-life experience for these students if we could get them involved," said Mary Beth Barnes, a teacher at Hutchings College and Career Academy and former engineering coordinator at Westside High School. "The math and the science and the technology that they learn in their classes comes to life in these cars. They learn a lot in these races."
The first high school competition had seven teams from Bibb County, and about 20 teams will face off Saturday. School teams are coming from the Bibb, Bleckley, Crawford, Dodge, Jones and Monroe County school districts as well as Woodfield Academy, the Academy for Classical Education and Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon, Executive Co-Director Brant Freeman said. The youth programs Next Level, Community in Schools, Boys and Girls Club and Upward Bound also will be represented.
The teams have to use the provided materials to assemble their cars, but there are a few things they can tweak. They can change the vehicle's look, airfoils and weight, although the car and driver together can't weigh more than 250 pounds. They have to consider aerodynamics, wind residence, speed, slope, starting-line placement and when to brake.
"All the energy has to come from gravity," said Dan Maley, an ACE team adviser and science teacher. "You're not allowed to add any kind of motor or spring action like that."
Adult advisers for the teams have access to a soap box derby curriculum with step-by-step instructions. They decide how many students help with the cars, when they work on them and how they want to use the curriculum.
Students are not only learning how the car works but strategizing the best position to drive it, Maley said. They use the scientific process to isolate variables and see how they affect the car's performance.
When students use math and science outside the classroom in tactical, fun ways, there's more potential to reach them and get them interested in STEM careers, Freeman said. There's a huge shortage of people in those fields, and the soap box derby could be the spark that attracts students to them, Barnes said.
"The cars come back in and they have been beat up," said Cassandra Washington, a career, technical and agricultural education director for the Bibb district and CEO of Hutchings College and Career Academy. "They have to refurbish the car to get it back to working condition. ... You really have to re-engineer your vehicle to make it competitive. There is a whole gamut of skills that the students get to learn."
Tavant Williams, a Southwest High senior, and Kareem Rhodan, a Howard High sophomore, are on the Hutchings team. They have been busy repairing damages their derby car sustained during last year's race.
Louis Guerra, Hutchings' team adviser and math teacher, said the vehicle crashed into hay bales, the steering cable broke and a couple of wheels disintegrated. The problem was in the back axle, which wasn't properly aligned, and it was a great learning experience for the students to learn what went wrong.
Woodfield Academy won first place in the STEM race last year with a time of 9.698 seconds, and the Academy for Classical Education was a close second at 9.717 seconds, said Spencer Braley, Woodfield's team adviser and a high school math and science teacher.
Braley incorporates the derby curriculum into his classes. His physics and geometry classes have assembled the car in the past, and students will employ some reverse engineering to take the car apart after the race Saturday.
On Wednesday morning, Braley coached senior Christen Gregory and sophomore JP Monford as they test drove the derby car down the school's driveway. Gregory, who will drive Saturday, said he is a little nervous about going down the Magnolia Street hill but excited to conquer the challenge. The school's five-member team touched up the car's neon green paint earlier this week, and all that's left to do is add weight and airfoils.
"Being a small school that doesn't have athletics, this is the closest to high school athletics that we get," Braley said. "If they have a goal that they're working toward and ... if there's knowledge that needs to be learned, students are very willing to get there."
ACE team members Jared Taylor, Hampton Johnson , Gavin Johnson, Ben Trofemuk, Brenton Johnson and Andy Prather said the goal is to travel the shortest line down the hill, taking into account a slight curve and a bump in the road. They hope to gain some speed this year with a smaller driver, sophomore Brenton Johnson, and they have been doing practice runs on a road behind the school.
"I let them control everything," Maley said. "These are some of the brightest kids I have. They come up with better ideas than I have. I let them be in charge, and it makes them feel kind of special."