When Bowling Green Elementary School fifth-grader Dixie Randolph read a handout about a regional solar car competition planned at Virginia Commonwealth University, she immediately told her teacher, “I’m doing this.”

Dixie, 11, soon was part of an all-girl team called Girl Power, designing a pink car with red glitter stripes.

The team’s efforts paid off. Their car won first place in the design category, one of several top prizes teams from Bowling Green and Madison elementary schools in Caroline County captured in the April 13 Rams Go Solar competition. In addition to the design award, the fifth-graders won first place overall and first place in racing for the solar cars they built.

This was the first year of the competition, which is co-sponsored by VCU’s College of Engineering and School of Education and funded by the Army Educational Outreach as part of its Junior Solar Sprint program.

Six hundred students in grades 5 through 8 from 17 schools in the Richmond region participated in the program. Two teams from each school—about 150 kids—were invited to Richmond, where they got to race their vehicles and have them judged by a panel of K–12 teachers, School of Education faculty, a science and research librarian at VCU’s library and five College of Engineering undergraduates handpicked for their leadership and volunteer experience.

VCU provided a grant to participating schools for purchasing materials for constructing the solar cars. Materials included Popsicle sticks, foam and balsa wood, wheels, axles, motors, battery packs and solar panels.

Rebecca Schieber, an instructional technology resource teacher at both Madison and Bowling Green elementary schools, said she works at VCU during summers and found out about the opportunity that way. She and Bowling Green math and science teacher Tamara Feggans sponsored the Caroline teams.

“I was pretty excited to bring this to Caroline for the kids,” Feggans said.

She said the kids who worked on the project are those who don’t or can’t typically participate in after-school programs. Many are also on free and reduced lunch.

Schieber said some of the students present behavioral problems in class, but love to build and thrived in the design-and-build environment.

“They really had to problem-solve and it was fun to see those kids who never participate in class stepping up,” she said.

Feggans said both she and Schieber were learning about solar cars along with the students, so the kids really were responsible for working out their own solutions.

The students worked on their solar cars on Thursday afternoons until 5:30 or 6 p.m. They started by drawing designs on paper and then had to figure out how to translate those designs to 3D.

“The hardest part was figuring out what gears to use so it wouldn’t be too heavy or too light,” said Brett Lambert, 10.

Another challenge was making sure the motors started fast enough to propel the car forward but not so fast that the wheels would just spin out.

At the competition in April, the cars raced on a 100-foot track, a distance they could cover in about 10 seconds.

The Caroline students who went to the competition in Richmond also got to tour VCU’s campus and meet engineering students and faculty.

“It was cool just to have them get the exposure to a college campus and to open up that future for them,” Schieber said. “I love that we were able to give the kids the opportunity to get out of their bubble.”

Dixie said she’s sad that the contest is over.

“I definitely want to do it again next year,” she said.

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Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973 auphaus@freelancestar.com @flsadele