Their school assignment was building a better mousetrap racecar, one that would travel farther than other physics classmates.

But while there were winners in this competition, it was — after all — a chance for Columbus East High School students to learn about physics. In particular, they learned about Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion. The classroom competition required students to think about friction and how to get the most pulling force out of strings that launched the cars.

Starting with a mousetrap provided by physics teacher Dellvenna Hambling, students were assigned to go out and create a racecar using anything they could find in just over a week’s time.

The competition, now in its 12th year, gave more than 100 East physics students a chance to build their own cars or work in teams.

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Cars were judged based on how many meters they traveled in a straight line in the school’s gymnasium, as well as their creativity.

Junior Elizabeth Wessel said she approached the lesson hoping her car would go the farthest.

Her mousetrap racecar — constructed with compact discs as wheels and a base made of plywood — used a lever attached with string to launch it, with the mousetrap’s spring used to push it forward.

Wessel’s racecar traveled 9.3 meters, far short of the competition-best 25.8 meters, but a distance that she said she was pleased with nonetheless.

She said building the racecar proved to be a trial-and-error process.

She began by buying some parts at a local home-improvement store, only to discover that some of them wouldn’t work well or were the wrong size.

Part of Wessel’s task was also determining whether the CDs — which a number of other students also used — would have enough traction on the gymnasium floors, she said.

“It was challenging,” Wessel said.

Building the mousetrap racecar required coming up with a design solution that would be effective for distance, not necessarily speed.

She practiced on the concrete floor of her family’s garage, finding the process educational and fun.

Her test-track pit crew included her father, Christian Wessel, a Cummins engineer.

“The big learning curve was being able to apply that friction to (the) real world and understanding real-world occupations,” Wessel said. “He was very excited to help and for me to bounce ideas off of him.”

Sophomores Pattsie Waltz and Ethan Lee worked together on their racecar, looking for a solution to make it light enough and still travel a good distance.

Their car — which traveled 8.3 meters — also had CDs wheels on the front, using two old records purchased at a local thrift store for the back pair.

The pair decided to use balsa wood, thinking it would be light enough while being able to hold the mousetrap together, Waltz said. The project required them to evaluate the tools being used to determine what was working and what wasn’t, she said.

Many of the students Waltz talked to didn’t test their racecars beforehand.

“I learned that sometimes trial-and-error isn’t the best way to do it. But in the long run, it gets you a lot farther than just hoping whatever you have works,” she said.

Aaron Lynott, Columbus East science department chairperson, said he is always surprised at what students are able to come up each year, adding that the competition allows them to apply what they have learned and to be creative as well.

“The best ones are when they take pieces of what they know and what other people have done and put their own twist on it,” Lynott said. “There’s always original stuff out there … but when you see them next to each other, you see this huge reflection of their individuality.”

Going the distance

Columbus East High School students participating in a project to learn about Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion build mousetrap race cars for physics teacher Dellvenna Hambling’s class to see whose would travel farthest. Cars created by these students went the farthest:

1) Sydney Franks, 25.8 meters.

2) Madi Schutte and Soren Fox, 20.6 meters.

3) Leonardo Saldivar, 19 meters.

Newton's laws of motion

Sir Isaac Newton in 1686 presented three laws of motion:

  • Newton’s first law states that every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force. This is normally taken as the definition of inertia.
  • The second law explains how the velocity of an object changes when it is subjected to an external force. The law defines a force to be equal to change in momentum (mass times velocity) per change in time.
  • The third law states that for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration