The UNSW Sunsprint Challenge is an annual event designed for students with a special interest in design and technology. A capacity to be able to work with others, problem solve, think creatively and an interest in Science are all desirable qualities for potential participants.
The event traditionally has involved senior high school students as it had been felt that younger students would not have the capacity to deal with the complex issues around creating a working car from scratch.
Over the past few years a number of businesses have made this process a little easier by producing some of the components that had been hard to obtain. RI Gear produce kits containing axles, wheels, gears and bearings that make a major difference to the type of car that can be produced. This innovation has opened up the competition to younger age students who may not have access to machinery equipment.
The students at SMCC have been involved in the Challenge for the past three years. The involvement has been through the Project Based Learning program running in Year 7. PBL runs for two periods per cycle and students choose the activity they wish to work on during this time. Participation in the Sunsprint is by application where teams are asked to submit a video outlining the reasons for possible selection as the participants for the year. They then work during PBL periods to construct their car.
It has been interesting to watch the development of the car over those years. In our first year the team constructed a car that could barely move around the track. The design was poor and the components inferior. In 2012 we were alerted to the existence of RI Gear and the capacity of our car increased enormously. While the design did not change greatly the components were much better and the car was reasonably competitive.
The track as shown above is available only once a year during the Open Day of UNSW. For first time participants this is the most difficult aspect of the Challenge. You really do not know how your car will go until you try it on the track. One team this year had obviously gone to great lengths constructing their car only to find it was not suitable for the track. Very disappointing and frustrating!
Over our involvement in the Challenge is has been great to watch the learning that comes out of constructing a car. Seeing students work together on a complex problem is very interesting. At first the problem seems insurmountable and they do not know where to start.
The regulations for this event are complex so understanding what you can and cannot do is important. That was our first port of call. From there it was working out a design that met the regulations. The students sketched a number of potential designs on paper and their iPads to get some idea of what they thought it should look like. They researched past events for successful cars.
The next stage was creating a cardboard model to check dimensions and looking to improve aerodynamics. This was an important part of the process. A number of modifications were made at this time before progressing to the construction phase. The Year 7 team eventually decided balsa would be their best option.
By the time the car was finished it was a combination of balsa and plywood. The students became concerned that the balsa would not withstand a collision should it occur and went with the stronger plywood. This decision would cost them valuable speed during the event. The weight of the car while maintaining strength would cost them dearly when it came time to compete against lighter and faster cars.