It’s derby season, which means your troop might be interested in participating in a pine car derby! For the derby, girls design, cut, and decorate wood cars that race down a wooden track. The derby is a great way for girls to learn some engineering concepts, how to be a good a sport, and how to take a project from an idea to a finished piece. Because derby involves woodcutting and other new skills, sometimes it’s easy for adults to take over. Here are some tips on how to keep your girls’ derby experience girl-led!
Designing your cars
- Find out what awards are possible for your race. There will always be prizes for speed, but not all participants are racing for fastest car. Some may be going for “Most Creative” or “Most Girl Scout Spirit.” The design elements are an important part of a derby! Once you talk to girls about the possible awards, ask them which awards they’d like to try for. This can help focus their ideas. Then, make sure girls keep their specific award in mind as they design and create their cars.
- Talk aerodynamics and weight—and then let them decide. There are abundant online resources about the science behind derby cars. I like this resource from a NASA scientist. The major concepts to go over are aerodynamics and weight. Smoother cars with smaller fronts and larger backs will work best. Have the girls think about real race cars (maybe even share some pictures). Talk about how much easier it is for wind to pass over a race car than a semi-truck. For weight, ask the girls: what powers the car to move down the ramp? It’s gravity! A car with weight in the back will move faster. After you go over these and other concepts with the girls, let them decide how they want to apply them. If everyone designed their car the same way, it wouldn’t be a derby!
- Use a design template. I like this one. Templates help keep designs reasonable without adults directing the process. Remind girls that they are “taking” wood away from the car, as opposed to adding wood on. They can color in their “blank space” to show where they want wood cut away.
Creating your cars
- Have girls direct the wood-cutting process. If you have the tools, you can cut your own cars. Many community and senior centers can help as well! Our troop scheduled time for all the girls to go together and use the tools. Girls should bring their design and talk it through with whomever is helping them cut their car. Your girls may be too young to cut the wood themselves, but they can still direct the process. We also have derby car-building kits available for purchase at our shops!
- Let girls do as much as they can safely. Our fifth graders used an orbital sander to sand down their cars. They used hammers and chisels to create indentations. Girls can certainly weigh and calculate extra weights needed. The more building they do, the more they learn and feel committed to the process.
- Let girls plan the painting. When it’s time to paint, have the girls make a list of colors they need. Our fifth graders wrote down their own list.
- Do some test runs. Work out any glaring issues before you get to the race. Even rolling the cars across a table or down a cardboard ramp can catch some issues. If a girl’s car is not working, you can direct her focus by asking, “Where is it not working?” or “What about your car is causing a problem?” Most of the time, a little bit of focus is all a girl needs to make adjustments on her own.
- Stay positive. If problems do arise—in testing or on race day—make sure to stay positive. Failure isn’t just “okay,” failure is necessary to engineering! Most races will give you a little time to correct your car before your second “heat.” Cars are never perfect on the first try, and usually, you don’t win your first race. But girls learn so much from testing, working out issues, and trying again. Girls can come up with a troop chant to cheer on girls in their troop, whether it was a successful race or a not-so-successful one.
- Reflect! After the race, ask the girls: What would you do differently next year? What was the easiest part of making the car? What part was most challenging? Have the girls take notes, and use them next year when you start your designing process again!
Whether it’s your first derby, or you’re a seasoned pro who’d like to shake things up a bit, hopefully, these tips will help the girls lead their derby experience. Happy racing, Girl Scouts!
Hannah Gilbert – Hannah is the STEM Program Coordinator and Summer Camp Director of Camp Lakamaga at Girl Scouts River Valleys. She also co-leads a troop of passionate, hilarious Girl Scout Juniors. Hannah has a degree in anthropology and environmental studies from New College of Florida. She’s worked in youth development continuously since high school and has spent over five summers at one camp or another. Her favorite activities to do with girls are open-ended, messy, and collaborative! Hannah lives in Minneapolis with her husband and their six-pound rescue dog. She loves to play video games and go hiking. She’s also a big movie fan—Hannah and her husband watch at least two movies a week!