Cardigan Mountain School A boarding and day school for boys in grades 6 through 9

Gates Students Learn 3D Design Through Car Race

Gates students race cars they designed and 3D printed

By Emily Magnus, Assistant Director of Communications

I came for the car race, but I stayed for so much more.

While the skies outside threaten to blanket the campus in flakes of white, inside Wallach the mood is decidedly brighter and warmer. Seventh graders dart about the lab, putting the finishing touches on the model cars they have been researching and building for the past several weeks. With hot glue and tape, they secure motors and batteries. Spinning the gears and axles, they fine-tune their drivetrains, trying to achieve minimal friction. In groups they huddle, comparing designs and predicting whose car will be the fastest.

“The students have already completed several projects that introduce them to all the tools they can use for their Gates inventions, and by now they’re very familiar with the LAUNCH process that we’ll use throughout the year,” says Director of Gates Eric Escalante P’20,’22. “This project introduces them to three-dimensional design, and it’s really exciting to watch the lightbulbs come on! They’re doing awesome work!”

Seventh graders put the finishing touches on their model cars

Seventh graders put the finishing touches on their model cars they have been researching and building. See more photos

Seventh graders participate in the Gates Invention and Innovation Competition each spring, and all the work they do throughout the year prepares them for it. The LAUNCH process outlines the steps they use with each new project:

L: Look, Listen, and Learn
A: Ask Tons of Questions
U: Understand the Process or Problem
N: Navigate Ideas
C: Create a Prototype
H: Highlight and Fix

As the students ping-pong around the room, it’s easy to see this process at work as they test their cars, return to their workspaces to make adjustments, and then test again, relentless in their pursuit of the fastest car. 

Waiting for the official start of the race, I wander the room, drawn to a hydroponic planter in the center of the room. Mr. Escalante holds a stopwatch in one hand, ready to start the races, but he takes the time to explain the project in front of me. At its base a Rubbermaid bucket is attached to a circuit of PVC pipes that snake up a wooden rack. At intervals the top of the PVC pipe has been drilled out to make room for plant pots. 

“The PVC watering system was designed by students in the new eighth-grade Gates elective, and the sixth graders designed the pots,” explains Mr. Escalante. “We’re still working out the flow rate of the water; the motor we are currently using is too powerful, so the water flows through the pipes too quickly, pushing past the pots and spilling out of the precut holes in the PVC pipe. Once we get a smaller motor, we should be able to set up the pots with seeds and bring in the grow lights and test the system.” His enthusiasm for this and other projects is clear as he describes what lies ahead.

A Gates student makes adjustments to his car.

A Gates student makes adjustments to his car.  See more photos

A student interrupts, asking for extra wheels and a new motor, and Mr. Escalante hurries off to find the parts. Finished with their adjustments, some students meet on the floor, between the high-top worktables, revving their engines at the start line, holding the wheels above the polished cement floor to achieve maximum output before sending their cars across the room. Other students chose a different strategy: stepping back from the start line, they allow their cars several feet of acceleration before crossing the start line. The test runs make it clear that further adjustments are necessary. The students continued to tinker, returning to their workstations to troubleshoot their designs and build better.

But not all the students are working on cars. As second-year students in the Gates program, returning seventh graders are already familiar with three-dimensional design software and do not need the practice. Instead they have already begun working on their inventions for the spring competition. Some students have even picked up where they left off last year, developing additional prototypes of the inventions they started last year. I strike up a conversation with Rio Burnett ’25 who last year as a sixth grader created a device that attaches to a soccer goal and limits players’ shooting area to the corners of a goal during practice. He explains to me that the previous prototype relied on magnets to hold the invention in place, which didn’t work because most goals are not made out of metal. With a new partner, Adlai Nixon ’25, Rio is designing a new prototype that will clamp to the goal posts. The boys are working on figuring out the best dimensions for the clamp with Gates Coach Chris Kondi.

“This project introduces them to three-dimensional design, and it’s really exciting to watch the lightbulbs come on! They’re doing awesome work!”

Director of Gates Eric Escalante P’20,’22

Mr. Escalante announces the start of the race, and Gates Coach Anne Clark gets out the official timing board to record each car’s fastest time. Again and again, cars cross the starting line, Mr. Escalante punches his stop watch, and the cars race across the room. For some the race is over quickly as the cars veer off-course, crashing into table legs and shelves long before the finish. Others sputter and struggle to make forward progress, held back by weak batteries and the friction between their gears. 

But many are successful. Designed with light chassis and gifted with even weight and straight axles, the cars cross the room in seconds. The boys cheer, high-fiving each other and lining up at the start again, hoping to shave tenths of a second off their next run to beat their classmates. And while the speedy cars certainly garner attention and cheers, the slow cars are celebrated as well with students walking and crawling with them across the finish line. 

While the three Rs are certainly important and have their place in middle school education, one gets a sense that these projects are tailor-made for these boys; there’s hands-on tinkering, there’s speed, there’s teamwork, and every now and then, there’s a good crash, just to keep things interesting. As the first flakes of snow fall outside the windows, I can’t help but smile at the boys’ enthusiasm and engagement. No doubt they’ll be busy all winter, asking questions, building, testing, and imagining what’s possible.

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Chronicle, Winter 2023 Issue

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