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Students Drive at Louise R. Johnson Middle School

The two cars were staged side by side on the starting line, confidently poised for the start of the race. Onboard cartridges, storing potential energy in the form of compressed carbon dioxide, were mated to the launch pods. In a moment, an electronic impulse would simultaneously activate solenoids in the pods – causing the two hardened-steel firing pins to stab forward and puncture the gas cartridges. This was about to go kinetic.

The race was the final matchup to determine the winner of the 2012 Middle School Dragster event at the annual Technology Student Association Conference in Nashville, TN. The car in Lane 1 was a sleek black missile emblazoned with the word Kamikaze in red letters. In Lane 2 was an airfoil-shaped vehicle dubbed Ink Jet that sported a colorful tie-dye-style paint scheme. To get to this point, Kamikaze and Ink Jet had each bested multiple challengers to be the last two cars in a field of 16 finalists.

“Both of them definitely have the engineer’s mind. They attend to the software . . . they’re not afraid of it.” – Hollis Brooks, advisor

The 16 finalists hailed from five states – Oklahoma, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. Remarkably, the builders of the two cars sitting on the track are not only from the same state – they are classmates. Merritt Kendzior, the builder of Kamikaze, and Hayden Kennelly, builder of Ink Jet, both attend Louise R. Johnson Middle School in Bradenton, FL.

It seems that while CO2 dragsters speed down the track without the aid of a driver, the two student competitors from Johnson Middle School definitely drove their project. Merritt and Hayden both mastered SolidWorks – a professional 3-D CAD software used by engineers – in order to design and perfect their cars. Merritt says that learning SolidWorks was the “hardest part” but was worth the effort. Their process was truly an engineering effort – they designed their cars, tested them (using the simulation tools in SolidWorks), refined, and retested. Repeatedly.

“You have to try and try,” Merritt said. “You’ll fail a bunch of times, but if one thing doesn’t work, you have to go to another.”

Hayden concurred. The most important lesson he learned from the project was “never to give up.”

Advisor Hollis Bostic credits Merritt and Hayden for their approach. “Both of them definitely have the engineer’s mind. They attend to the software . . . they’re not afraid of it.”

The teachers provided guidance and helped them prioritize their work, but the real engineering was left to the students.

Susanne Jarrell, another teacher at the school, adds, “They understood lift and drag. They got all of that once we showed them, SolidWorks and CAMWorks helped with the simulation, so they got that concept and that was the key to them designing and changing.”

Merritt and Hayden collaborated throughout the project, sharing insights gained from success and failures along the way. Despite their collaboration, their designs are completely different.

PSSSSSST – Gas blasting from the tiny holes in each onboard cartridge, the cars rocketed down the track, like fighter jets flying in formation. Less than one second later, they crossed the finish line and came to an abrupt halt, frosty cartridges now empty. By the smallest of margins, Merritt’s car won the race.

While the official records capture first and second place, no one lost. Just as they shared insights while designing, testing, and building in the weeks preceding the event, Merritt and Hayden seemed more than happy to share the victory.