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Town uses CO2 races to prep students for local careers

For most, springtime means flowers, green leaves, and the end of the school year. But for one small Oklahoma town, it means it’s time to speed things up with CO2 races.

In March, approximately 100 high schoolers from Duncan, OK, and the surrounding communities will come together to compete with their CO2 dragsters. In May, about 150 middle school students will do the same. This is the two-part Duncan Area Youth Engineering Contest, which helps encourage students to learn the skills needed for area businesses.

Created in 2008 by the Duncan Area Economic Development Foundation (DAEDF), the contest started as the entertainment part of another event and had 17 cars entered by high school students.

“We did this simultaneously with our job fair,” said Lyle Ruggow, DAEDF president. “We had 30 different businesses, and we’d use the job fair to help students learn about the jobs in the area. At the same time we’d do the race – it was kind of an attention-getter.

“Now it’s turned out that this triumphed over the job fair a little bit.”

Ruggow said they decided to make the race its own event and opened it to middle school students, though they compete in a different division than high school students. After receiving more than 300 entries from five schools in 2015, DAEDF broke it into two separate events.

The 2015 contest was a music-thumping event with three large projection screens behind two 80-foot elevated racetracks. Between the tracks and gymnasium bleachers were long tables with all the entries lined up, each with an ID number. As attendees filed in, they looked over the entries in order to vote in the People’s Choice award. A presenter with a mic kept things moving along as a well-trained team of volunteers seamlessly loaded and unloaded cars and recorded race data between plumes of CO2 exhaust from the racecars.

The competition, however, is about more than just racing. Its aim is to encourage engineering and design and for students to learn from the event. They are required to bring their dragsters and technical drawings (CAD or hand drawn) a week beforehand. The cars are judged on technical standards and safety, but if there’s a disqualification, it’s not the end of the road.

“We decided we shouldn’t penalize the kids – we’re trying to teach them,” said Ruggow. “We call all the disqualified candidates back and say, ‘OK, come pick your car up; here’s the issue on the sheets, and we’re going to let you have a few more days to fix the problems or build a new car.’

“We’re trying to help the students so they understand what the final product needs to look like. This is about learning, not disqualifying.”

So why the big learning emphasis from an organization that’s not a school? It’s simple: career preparation. The town of Duncan might be small at about 23,000 residents, but it’s loaded with companies that need employees with technical skills, such as Duncan Machine Products, Halliburton, Cameron Measurement Systems, and Southern Machine Works, Inc.

“We’re trying to get those students to understand earlier what their careers might be, and then we try to tie this back to why they need to know science, math, technology,” Ruggow said. “We even do tours for our teachers – we’re always trying to get them to understand that what our community needs is a lot of engineering and CNC machining.”

Those companies and the community support the effort. Jeannie Bowden, DAEDF’s business and industry specialist, said they have six sponsors plus companies that provide volunteers to help run the event. In 2015, they started a corporate division where each company makes a dragster and races it against other companies. This division also helps fund the event, as each corporation must pay a $250 fee to enter. That money is offered back to schools as grants (this year, six corporations are racing). The local Reed River Technology Center and Cameron University also partner with the DAEDF for the contest, and parents also volunteer.

“We’re blessed that our community believes in investing in itself, so it really wouldn’t matter if it were a CO2 race or an arts program or whatever,” said Bowden. “We all just help each other. Many of the businesses do it primarily because it’s their future workforce. It teaches the kids employable skills like problem solving and critical thinking.”

“What you’re doing is planting seeds for the future – and you’re making learning relevant,” Ruggow added. “Let’s face it, most people learn by seeing it and doing it rather than reading about it. You’re trying to get them engaged at an earlier age.”

By PJ Graham, web content specialist