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Immaculate Heart of Mary School students go to the races in the name of science

Students at Immaculate Heart of Mary School watch cars powered by mousetraps in the parking lot of the school on Jan. 22. The races are part of a lesson on friction. They are normally held in the gymnasium. Photo/Don Blake

WILMINGTON — The parking lot behind Immaculate Heart of Mary School was buzzing on the morning of Jan. 22. Filled — or as filled as possible with social distancing in place — with eighth-grade students, younger spectators, teachers and parents — the school held its annual mousetrap races, a science project that doubled as a fun alternative to the classroom.

For the first time in its six-year history, the races were held outside, a concession to the coronavirus pandemic, instead of in the gymnasium. Fortunately, the temperatures were mild for a late January morning, which was not the case for the other group of eighth-graders when they held their races three days earlier.

Jack Hanson (left) and Tommy Kodadek put the finishing touches on a mousetrap-powered car. Photo/Don Blake

Science teacher Nichol Carroll said the students are given a bunch of criteria for their race cars, including the materials from which they could be made. She provided the mousetraps and two wooden dowels, although use of the dowels was optional.

“It’s a hands-on project dealing with friction, and it gives them the opportunity to build something. They can work either by themselves or with a partner,” she said.

Each of the individuals or groups attached a string to the mousetrap, then wound the string around the rear axle of their car. As the spring on the mouse trap deployed, the string was unwound from the axle, propelling the car forward. A few of the cars traveled the length of the parking lot, from near the school building, down a slight hill, to the curb next to the athletic field. Twins Matthew and Joey Melican were a team whose car reached the curb. Their back wheels were much larger than the front, like a bicycle from the late 1800s.

“The back wheels we made really big so we would get farther because there’s more area on the bottom. The front we made smaller so it doesn’t get as wobbly, and it’s lighter,” Joey said. “I knew it would make it the 50 feet, but when it went all the way across the parking lot, I was like, ‘Whoa.’”

Students Madison Mutschler (left) and Morgan Misero release their car. Photo/Don Blake

Matthew said the project was part of the study of friction. “The heavier an object is, the more friction it has on the ground. But it doesn’t as far. It goes straight. But since we’re going downhill, it will go further. So we have kind of a heavy car here.”

The twins also learned from experience. Matthew said the first time they wrapped the string around a piece of tape on the rear axle, it didn’t work as planned.

“The first time, our string kind of gets caught on the piece of tape and turns backwards,” he said.” So, we wound the first part on the side and moved it over to the tape. That was able to help it keep its momentum.”

Partners Morgan Misero and Maddie Mutschler were the early leaders. Dressed as James P. Sullivan and Mike Wazowski, the main characters from the film “Monsters Inc.,” they said they were surprised their entry went as far as it did.

“I think it was just the way we wound the string. The tighter we wrapped the string, the farther it went,” Morgan said.

Maddie said they used straws on the rear axle to help keep the wheels from wobbling, and that helped. They also learned about two different types of friction.

“We were learning about friction when we made this. And how they use surface friction in the car and air friction with the string,” Maddie said.

Aiden Miller prepares the release his mousetrap-powered car at Immaculate Heart of Mary School parking lot. Photo/Don Blake

The winners were another set of brothers, Tommy and Danny Kodadek. Men of few words, they were content to take the trophy after beating the other cars in a final heat. Danny said both he and Tommy are good at science, and that played a role in the construction of their car.

“We just made sure it was slim. The wheels were perfectly glued perfectly straight,” he said,

Tommy said they watched a few videos online and tried to base the design off of those. Carroll said she will try to arrange a battle between the Kodadek boys and the three girls who teamed up to win the earlier cohort’s races. The brothers were not about to make a prediction about who would win.

“I don’t want to jinx it,” Tommy said.