Not your grandfather’s balloon races

By Wesley LeBlanc
Posted 10/24/18

FLEMING ISLAND – Energy, force and motion came together last week in a unique way at Paterson Elementary School.

While simply reading through the textbook might work for some, sixth grade …

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Not your grandfather’s balloon races


FLEMING ISLAND – Energy, force and motion came together last week in a unique way at Paterson Elementary School.

While simply reading through the textbook might work for some, sixth grade science teacher Julie Killian prefers to get her students more involved. Weeks of research, design and following detailed instructions all came together Oct. 18 when science classes held balloon races. To be exact, students built cars that were then powered by balloons to learn hands-on how energy, force and motion all work together to make an object move.

“This is a very educational way to teach them about kinetic and potential energy because it’s applied right in front of their eyes,” Killian said. “It helps them see how these things work in real life.”

While this isn’t the first time Killian has hosted a balloon-powered car competition in her five-year career, it’s no less exciting. For her, it’s seeing the kids put what they learn into action and the excitement that comes with it that keeps this competition a staple at Paterson.

Each student was required with creating a race car powered by at least one 9-inch balloon. While they were allowed to use the internet for race car inspiration, Killian encouraged them to come up with their own design.

If a race car was unique enough, it earned the student a few bonus points. No matter how unique though, the car had to move off the force of a blown-up balloon, had to roll on at least three wheels and must have been made using exclusively recyclable materials found around the house.

While these rules sounds strict, it didn’t stop students from coming up with some pretty unique race cars. One student, Sophia Zhao, 11, built one of the biggest cars in the race, so big that she didn’t even call it a car.

“It’s a bus,” Zhao said. “It’s made of index cards and cardboard, and the wheels are made of container lids. It looks really awesome, but it didn’t really do too well. It only went a fraction of a centimeter.”

While Killian encouraged students to make their car unique, she also stressed that function should come before fashion.

“Sometimes they spend so much time making the car look great that they forget it also needs to work,” Killian said.

The main goal is to create the fastest car, but the student will lose or gain points based not only on speed, but distance, originality and appearance as well. After all of the races, the top two from each class were determined. Those two will compete in a grand finale of sorts at the end of the school year against the other top two from each class. The first-place winner for Killian’s last science class of the day, Jillian McKinney, 11, was surprised her car got first place.

“I didn’t think mine would be first place, but I’m excited it did,” McKinney said.

McKinney’s car had a leg up in the race in that she worked off the blueprint of her 9th grade brother’s design. Like McKinney, her brother made a balloon-powered race car when he was in sixth grade. According to McKinney, her brother’s did pretty well so she used a similar design. Naturally though, McKinney added her own flair: rainbows.

After the race, each student was required to graph how their car performed and complete a four-page report detailing the materials used, the procedure to build the car, an analysis of how energy, motion and forces applied to the car and a reflection on the unit. This report is just as important as the race car itself, with each aspect accounting for 50 percent of the project’s grade.


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