Lessons from my son’s first Pinewood Derby

One of my coworkers, a guy with an infectious laugh named Jamaal, organized a get-together on Friday. My boss asked me if I was going.

“Sorry, it’s my son’s first Pinewood Derby,” I said. I had to explain to my boss what that was–I don’t think he was ever a Cub Scout or Boy Scout–but he was intrigued.

For whatever reason, when I was a kid my dad didn’t take the opportunity to teach me as much as he could have when we built Pinewood Derby cars, but I told my boss the only good physics lesson I ever got in my life was when Dad explained to me how a Lionel train worked. Here’s something cool you can do with math and science, and I never had a teacher show me anything cool you can do with those two things.

So here are some things even a first-grader can learn from the Pinewood Derby.

Heavy cars are faster than light cars. The Pinewood Derby cars are powered by gravity, so the cars that are closest to five ounces in weight have an advantage over the ones that aren’t quite five ounces in weight. The physics involved are way too heavy for a first grader, but it at least plants the curiosity.

The metric system. I got a great idea from one of the other dads, too: At home, measure the car weight in grams, rather than ounces, for better precision. If the car weighs 141 grams at home, there’s a lot less chance of it registering 5.1 ounces at the meet. That’s an opportunity to introduce the metric system.

Center of gravity. This is a heavy concept too, but you gain an advantage if the weight is toward the back of the car, because the car keeps building momentum longer.

Slippery axles make wheels turn faster. We polished his axles and put graphite on them so the wheels would turn well. He has some idea what oil is already; this plays right into that.

How to paint. He painted the car with a little bit of help from me. We used acrylic primer, paint, and clearcoat so we could do it all in the kitchen. We got some stickers he liked and put them on, then put a clearcoat over everything. This gave him a car design he liked without a terrible amount of fuss, and it actually allowed him to participate. Some car designs get way too elaborate for a first-grader to be able to contribute in any meaningful way.

How to sand. He didn’t know what sandpaper was when we started. Now he knows you use sandpaper to make wood smooth. I have poor tools and skills that wouldn’t know what to do with good tools, so trust me, the car needed some sanding after I was done cutting on that block.

Math. There was all sorts of math involved. I drew the car out on the computer ahead of time because I didn’t trust myself to measure it as precisely as I wanted it to be. Then once it was cut out and put together, I had to do quite a bit of math to figure out how to get the weight back up to 5 ounces because the car body weighed less than an ounce once I was done with it. The math is beyond a first grader, and I could have just done it by trial and error, but I wanted him to see me do the math.

Tools. I didn’t know how to properly drive a nail with a hammer until I was 27 years old, and to this day I’m not all that good at it. I’ve picked up a few things as an adult and I can competently do a lot of household repairs, though I’ll never think of myself as particularly handy. When it’s appropriate I’ll teach them how to use the various tools, and I’m sure both of my sons will be better with tools than I am as a result.

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