What's the best way to teach school children about Bloodhound, the 1000mph supersonic car that's planning to break the Land Speed Record next year? The answer is simple, and it involves building rocket cars.
The concept might sound familiar, and that's because the Bloodhound team have already been engaging with schools across the country since last year, inviting children to build their own miniature rocket cars out of foam and then race them along a wire-guided course. Our own Steve Cropley entered the contest in July last year, and even if we did end up losing to school children, the lessons were clear: the children were engaging with engineering by building their own cars.
For 2016, Bloodhound has partnered with the BBC and its Micro:bit computer. The device - similar to a Raspberry Pi micro-computer - is being sent out free to every current Year 7 student across the country. The tiny unit is codeable and comes preloaded with everything kids need to start learning and creating their own computer programs. For Bloodhound, it's a win-win situation.
I went along to Kennet School near Newbury, where the very first Bloodhound workshop session using the new Micro:bit computers was under way. After a brief introduction from programme chief Jas Thandi, the kids set to work on their foam models. Here, older and younger students are pared together, and it's fascinating to see their designs take shape. It's quickly apparent that the way to win is to cut the frontal load area, reduce weight where you can and try to eliminate as much drag as possible.
I'm happy to watch, until an official hands me my own foam block and tells me I'll be racing against the kids. I text Steve for advice...
In only an hour the designs are ready, and cut to shape using a hot wire cutting machine. The straight edges have been sanded down and the weight shedding has begun. One team has even knocked out several of the spokes from their plastic wheels in a bid to save vital grams. These kids are serious.
My own design takes inspiration from Bloodhound itself, with a cone-shaped nose leading back towards a smooth body. Of course, the models all need names, a contest which to my mind was won by Leonardo DiCarprio. Brilliant.
Next, it's out onto the playground to race our cars. Each model has a wedge cut into it for the Micro:bit to slot into. The device features an accelerometer, so we'll be able to map the data from each car. The cars will race along a wire-guided course and through a speed trap, and power will come from a pocket rocket - similar to those used in working model rockets.
The first cars line up and the track is pronounced 'live'. In the next second, there's a loud fizz as both rockets ignite and the cars take off. We're taken aback by just how fast these cars go before reaching the other end, and how much difference aerodynamics can make.
The cars are fired off in pairs until its Autocar's turn. Our car takes the start line against a model designed by a journalist from PC Advisor magazine. At the off, it looks like the Autocar rocket is going to grab the win, but we fizzle out early and PC Advisor takes the lead. I'm later told our speed was in the 50mph bracket - only slightly better than our previous efforts, then, and well behind the day's winning speed of 64mph, set by Team Dobby Doodles, no less.
Back in the classroom and the kids can see the data collected from their cars. It's clear they're engaged, with some saying how they would refine their designs for more runs.
I ask Bloodhound's chief engineer Mark Chapman how important the education side is to the overall project. “Bloodhound only exists as an educational project,” he says. “Our two primary goals are to inspire children and to provide as much information as possible. The third goal is to break the Land Speed Record. We started publicly in 2008, and we wouldn’t have lasted this long as a project if we hadn’t started to deliver on the education side. We’re now seeing in the past few years a huge growth in the number of schools engaging with the project, and this is the next level.”
With everyone’s runs completed, the data from the day will be uploaded to Bloodhound’s website, allowing these children to see how their cars compare nationally. The top performers will then be invited to a final at Santa Pod raceway in June to battle it out for the overall prize.
This is the very beginning for the updated Bloodhound Micro:bit model rocket car competition, but plenty more schools are interested in getting involved. If Bloodhound’s goal here was to inspire school children, and teach them about engineering, physics, and coding all in one go, I’d say that it's mission accomplished.