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Fifth-graders get ready for ‘intense’ race

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Fifth-graders at Monte Vista Elementary School prepare to test miniature racecars they designed with help from University of New Mexico engineering students. (Jessica Dyer/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A hush fell over the Monte Vista Elementary School gym Friday afternoon as students huddled around miniature race cars and awaited a teacher’s go-ahead to launch them down taped-off lanes.

“This is intense,” fifth-grader West Buxton quietly confided.

Seconds later, Buxton’s teammate Zeus Maes unleashed Disco Ninja – a toy automobile the boys’ team spent the past two weeks designing, with the help of University of New Mexico engineering students. Propelled by an orange balloon, Disco Ninja managed to dart 22 feet across the basketball court. Not the farthest of the 16 entries, but satisfying nonetheless.

“Pretty good,” Buxton assessed. “I don’t know if we’re supposed to keep it in the lane – probably. If not, then it’s cool.”

Representatives from UNM’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers program have for years volunteered at Monte Vista, often providing the younger group their first exposure to engineering, UNM professor John Russell said.

The program is popular among the UNM students, said participant Marissa Martinez, who volunteered for every session.

“Believe me, the engineers have just as much fun as the little kids,” she said.

The college crew visited Monte Vista five times prior to Friday’s competition. The UNM students – who are currently designing their own life-size race car for an upcoming competition in Lincoln, Neb. – were able to relate what they have learned about friction, aerodynamics and more, Martinez said. They also provided mentorship as the younger set tried different parts to see what worked best for their cars.

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Zeus Maes looks down the lane before he releases his team’s balloon car at Monte Vista Elementary School on Friday. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

“It helps them problem-solve and ask the question ‘Why?’, which is something, as engineers, we really try to emphasize,” she said.

After a test run Friday revealed their car pulling to the right, Buxton and Maes’ team added a penny to the left side for weight. It didn’t completely solve the problem, since Disco Ninja still struggled to follow a straight line during competition.

But the boys took it in stride. Asked what would become of Disco Ninja after competition, Buxton said he expected one of the five team members might take it home.

“If I get to keep it,” he said, “I could put it on my shelf and put a little sticker on it that says ‘You did all right.’ ”

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