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How Hot Wheels Help Austin Fourth Graders Learn Physics

Kate McGee

A group of elementary school students sit on the floor of a classroom at Sunset Valley Elementary. They’re connecting plastic pieces to build orange ramps and pushing tiny race cars down them. The goal is to see if the car can make it all the way around the loop. 

"One, two, three," says one student before letting go of the race car. It doesn't make it.

"Oh! So close!" they yell. 

"Maybe adding a book on top of the thing?" another student asks. The students have stacked textbooks to create a ramp. 

"Okay try it out. This is all about experimentation," says Robert Goodwin, Executive Director of Mattel Children's Foundation, which is funding a new curriculum in Austin schools next year.

These students are part of Austin ISD’s science summer camp, but they’re testing out a new science curriculum called Speedometry. Fourth grade students will be using the curriculum this fall.  It teaches kids about energy and force, measurement and distance through play and hands-on activities, like Hot Wheels.

Engineers from the University of Southern California developed the curriculum with Mattel Children’s Foundation, and they’re funding the program in Austin next year.

"When children are playing with sports or toys, they’re trying to discover 'what if?', and they’re experimenting and don’t really know that’s what they’re doing," says Frieda Lamprecht, an elementary science curriculum specialist with AISD.

“But all play in and of itself is kind of experimentation and investigation about 'what if?'”

That 'What if' is why fourth grader Leslie Majano loves science.

“I got an A-plus in each of my science report cards," she says after explaining kinetic and potential energy. Majano says she likes using the cars to learn.

“You’re actually doing the experiment instead of just sitting down and looking at the chalkboard.”

Austin ISD says they’re trying to integrate more hands-on experimentation in their Science, Technology, Engineering and Math classes as early as possible. These lessons will be offered district-wide in English and Spanish. 

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