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Putting Science to Work for Pinewood Derby – Tips From a Former NASA Engineer and a Scout Mom

Ask a Cub Scout his favorite activity of the year. There’s a good chance he’ll tell you Pinewood Derby. And whether kids realize it or not, part of enjoying Pinewood Derby is observing science at work. Melissa of the blog Sippy Cup Mom has a son in Cub Scouts who absolutely loves Pinewood Derby. When the time came to create his own car for the big race, the whole family got involved to figure out the science behind making a car go fast. “I loved that this activity was not only giving us a bonding experience but teaching my son STEM – science, technology, engineering and math!” Melissa said. The notion of Pinewood Derby car construction guided by science and physics is even backed by a former NASA scientist (this guy worked on the Mars Curiosity rover, meaning he knows A LOT about making wheeled things go). Mark Rober explained to Boys’ Life how he worked with his son to put the construction principles he learned at NASA into a Pinewood Derby car. And this science is really cool: Depending on your Scout’s age, NASA-level science (or science explained by a NASA-level engineer) may not fully click. But from Melissa’s blog post and Mark’s building tips, there are some basic scientific principles any Scout can glean for the Pinewood Derby.

  1. A car as heavy as your race rules will allow has the potential to go faster than a lighter one.
  2. Strategically placing the heaviest weight in your car boosts its “potential energy” and, in turn, how fast it will fly.
  3. Friction, or the resistance your car faces rolling over a track, slows it down.
  4. A wedge versus a block-shaped car is more aerodynamic. That means the air in a room or wind won’t slow it down as much.