What do NASA and NASCAR have in common? Plenty. Just ask Audrey Quartey-Lynch and Martina Smith, two students from the University of West Georgia’s UTeach program who recently led workshops at NASA’s Rockets 2 Racecars (R2R) event at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March. R2R is an event in collaboration with Jimmie Johnson Racing where science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) converge to teach the parallels between aerospace and racing science.
“NASCAR is the most attended sport; think Super Bowl every single weekend,” said Dr. Lester Morales, NASA–Kennedy Space Center education professional development specialist. “It is the only sport where you get to see engineering in action during the competition. The aerodynamics that creates lift for airplanes are identical yet opposite of the aerodynamics used to create down force on racecars. The wing, turned upside down, becomes a spoiler.”
Quartey-Lynch and Smith were joined by three Georgia educators as well as NASA and Jimmie Johnson Racing representatives. Approximately 50 adults and 30 kids took part in the team’s four activity programs, each exhibiting the different ways NASCAR relates to science.
One activity demonstrated Burnelli’s theory of lift by using an index card. The participant folded the card in half then guessed what would happen if air was blown under it. Most assumed the card would flip over, but instead it did the opposite and flattened.
“The explanation is that the air moving under the car has been sped up and is moving faster, creating lower pressure,” explained Smith, who is a senior majoring in biology in secondary education. “The bumper (splitter) on the front of a racecar works the same. The splitter generates lower pressure beneath the car, and with higher pressure above the car, grip and control are both increased.”
The second activity involved making a ping-pong ball “float” by using a bendable straw. By balancing the ball on the straw and continuously blowing through it, the ball will lift and float right above the straw. Smith and Quartey-Lynch said that this happens because low pressure is created around the ball, allowing the higher pressure above to hold it in place. NASCAR enthusiasts might recognize something similar on the track. Drafting occurs when air moves around two cars and allows them to travel as one vehicle with the power of two motors.
The third presentation, called Fluttering Fun, dealt with point of balance. Students were handed two paperclips, a butterfly cutout, and a pencil, and they were asked to place the butterfly on the pencil and make it balance. Then they added a paperclip to each wing and tried again.
“This is where driver skill in communicating the ‘feel’ of the car comes in,” clarified Smith. “In NASCAR, the dispersal of weight and the position of the car’s center of gravity affect the steadiness and handling of the car as it travels around the track.”
In the final activity, kids placed two ping-pong balls on the ground next to each other with space between them and used a straw to blow air between them. Although most guessed this would push the balls further apart, it actually brought them closer together due to the low pressure between them. All racecars have a strip on the edge of the roof in order to trap air. If the air traveled off the roof it would be traveling around a curved surface and would create an area of low pressure on top of the car. Instead, the air is trapped at the edges of the roof, creating higher pressure above the car for better grip and handling.
Quartey-Lynch and Smith said the opportunity to work with both NASA and NASCAR is something they will never forget. Smith added that UTeach, an innovative teacher preparation program for students majoring in science and mathematics, helped prepare her for the activity in various ways.
“UTeach taught me how to talk to students and relate information to them in ways they’d understand. I also learned how to elaborate, letting the students’ minds wander and find other ways to make the activities work,” she said. “To share my knowledge of the topics and activities was awesome.”
Photography Credit: NASA