Time needed:  Two to three weeks.

Science Objectives
The student will explore and demonstrate some of the principles of motion:  gravity, friction, inertia, mass, weight, and speed.

The student will learn through practice the recycling concepts of "re-use" and "re-purpose."

Art Objectives
The student will create a personalized and unique recycled model car from student collected recycled materials.

Social Studies Objectives
The student will help plan and implement a recycled model car festival.

Math Objectives
The student will help time and measure recycled model car races of distance, speed, and accuracy.

Teacher provided materials:  Racing ramp (approx. 7 feet x 1 foot); stop watch; metric and standard measuring tapes; hand tools (hammer, pliers, saw, drill, sandpaper, et al); certificates and ribbons.

Student provided materials:  A variety of recycled materials (cans, lids, boxes, sticks, plastic bottles, chop sticks, lumber scraps, cardboard, empty Scotch tape reels, caps from dried out whiteboard markers, et al); adherents (glues, nails, screws, tape, nuts and bolts, et al); decorations (decals, paint, glitter, little army guys, Barbie dolls et al); lubricants (WD-40, oil, graphite et al).  I encourage students to share their unused materials.

Time-line:  Some time just before, during, or just after your Science unit on Motion introduce the project with student copies of rules and guidelines and a letter home with a permission slip for child to use hand tools under adult supervision.  Give the kids two weeks to gather materials before the designing and building begins in class.  Five to ten days of Science class is set aside for the building of cars.  Five or more Science class periods are needed for the festival competition and awarding of certificates and ribbons.  Display the cars in the school.  Kids like to make their own tags for their cars on a tented 3 x 5 note card.  In addition to student's name, the tag may be decorated and include the car's name.  Display of ribbon and certificate won is optional.

Recycled Model Car Project Narrative

During my first year of teaching fifth grade and my twenty-seventh of teaching, I had one student who was extremely oppositional.  Let's call him Thomas.  Whatever I asked Thomas to do, I was pretty sure he wouldn't; and whatever he shouldn't do, he was likely to do.

One day in April I was walking about the classroom, helping individual students with their Math work.  Thomas was not surprisingly doing something else.  I watched him for a few minutes poking holes with his compass in a pop can and in the center of several water-bottle caps.  He also had his glue, tape and a couple of straightened out, large paperclips on his desk.  Thomas was engaged, and I was very curious.

I asked him to tell me about his project on his desk, and he told me about the model car he was making.  Thomas told me that he wanted it to "really work" (roll across a hard floor). 

As he explained, I had one of those awesome "a-ha teaching moments."  Earth Day was approaching; we were completing a science unit on motion, and Thomas had a creative idea combining recycling and the physics of motion.  I told Thomas I thought everyone in our class would like to make a model car out of recycled stuff and asked him to help me teach the lesson.  My reasoning was remarkably simple; if Thomas taught a lesson, he'd have to do the work/learning.  My invitation gave him pause, but he enthusiastically agreed to help.

Thomas helped me write the rules and guidelines for making the cars.  He also helped me think of categories of competition (fastest, farthest, most accurate, coolest looking, smallest, funniest, most creative, weirdest, tallest, shortest and so on—enough categories so everyone could win at least one 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place certificate and ribbon. 

This mini-unit practically wrote itself, and Thomas easily sold the idea to the other students.  After we completed the unit the first year, my 5th graders deemed it a success and declared building recycled model cars should be a 5th grade tradition. 

I've taught it now for years, and every year this mini-unit is refined.  I found the more specific the rules and guidelines are (see attachment), the more comfortable the students are, and a feeling of fairness is cultivated.  I am also convinced that the actual building of the cars in the classroom, and not at home, is essential in fostering fairness and in keeping focus on the process rather than the competition. Some parents can be very competitive.

After a few years of teaching this lesson, my 5th graders started interviewing 6th graders about the cars they made the previous year.  I thought this was a great way to practice collaboration, and the interviewing became a permanent part of the unit.  Some years I partner each 5th grader with a 3rd grader.  My kids love teaching younger students about science.  I also learned that I enjoy teaching this unit more when I also made a recycled car.  If you do build one with your kids, be prepared to race with them.  They will demand it. Your time, distance, accuracy, and coolness won't count towards a certificate or ribbon, but if you participate you'll learn as much as your student, and you'll have as much fun with science.

Letter to Send Home with Students

Recently, [school name] [grade level] graders have been studying force, motion, and simple machines.  The culminating project for this unit is the construction and racing of recycled model cars.  Each student has begun collecting recycled materials to build a model car in class beginning Monday, [month] [day].

The cars will be tested in three areas:  speed, accuracy (tracking a straight line), and distance.  Students may choose one area on which to concentrate or try making a car which will excel in two or three areas.

[Teacher name] will be bringing hand tools for students to use with supervision, and students may bring tools from home with written permission from their parents.  No money may be spent on the cars with the exceptions of adherents (glue, nails, screws, bolts, etc.) and decorations (paint, decals, glitter, etc.).

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    3 Discussions


    6 years ago on Introduction

    i just paid to download this thinking i would have access to more mini unit "plans" (as it states in the title) and there is no extra information once you click to download the pdf! its the same that I could see before paying! not happy. the title is misleading.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    This is definitely interesting. It'd be cool to see a step by step of an exemplary version of one of these. Perhaps the one that you made?

    Also, how did yours do in the competition with the class?