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Balsa-box racers take on the world

Scarborough school headed for finals of F1 in Schools design competition.

Published November 15, 2012

It’s 4 p.m. at the Scarborough Academy of Technological, Environmental and Computer Education and the rooms are deserted — all except for one.

Inside Connie Yung’s design and technology lab, there is a hive of student activity. Owen Chen is loading a balsa wood block into a milling machine. Genooshan Indirathas applies thin strips of masking tape to a lime green aerodynamic wedge. Ajanthan Hariharan is deep in conversation with a student in Florida, via Skype. Three other students are buzzing about, sanding wood and fitting bearings into small PVC plastic wheels.

In a week, these six young fellows will be jetting off to Abu Dhabi to compete in the world finals of the F1 in Schools Challenge. Each team must design and build a 55 gram, 1/20th scale, balsa-wood F1 model car, which is then shot down a 20-metre track (propelled by a CO2 cartridge).

The students design their models with CAD/CAM 3-D modeling software, test them in virtual wind tunnels, and then mill them from a brick-sized block of wood in a CNC machine.

Having finished second in Canada’s competition last April, the Scarborough group is paired up in a collaborative effort with a school in Florida. Their team is called VeloxF1 (veloxf1.com).

As well as racing their car in Abu Dhabi, the team will give an eight-minute presentation that will be judged on 300 points.

Established in England, F1 in Schools is a non-profit program open to students ages 11 to 18. There are currently 12 million students in 34 countries. Drawing on the excitement of F1 racing, the program is more than just building a cool model car. Teams not only design and build the car, they must also create a business plan, find sponsors, manage budgets, design the graphics and document the whole process in a 20-page, full-colour portfolio.

So where is the car? All I see is a bunch of rough wheel-less bucks and a box-car-shaped mule that the lads are firing down the hallway on a mock-up track to assess bearing performance. The energetic and upbeat Yung keeps an eye on everything. Between running wires, ensuring times are documented, and helping attach wheels to the mule, she reminds support-team member Jay Shukla to “make sure the team shirts are washed and bring your suitcase tomorrow.”

As would be expected this late in the game, all the heavy lifting is done. The prototype cars have been sent to Florida, where the actual racer is being produced, and the cars I see here are for VeloxF1’s display, which will show the F1 model in various stages of completion.

The Canadian franchise of F1 in Schools was established in 2005 by Paul Riddell, president of Progressive Educational Systems in Bellville, Ont. Most of the participating schools are in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.

It’s a relatively low-cost program. Registration includes the CAD/CAM software and balsa wood bucks for the car, along with access to a CNC milling facility if the school doesn’t have one.

I assumed everyone on the team would be a hopeless F1 fanatic, with dreams of someday working for McLaren or Red Bull. Not the case. In fact, team leader Hariharan joked that if they do win the world championship, which includes admission to a London-based auto-design school, they won’t know what to do with it.

But whether they eyeing careers in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering or marketing, they all agree this experience has been invaluable.

Out in the hallway, the test car blasts down the track and team members scrutinize the numbers on the timing board. Sure, it’s serious business, but these comrades in arms go about their tasks with enthusiasm, lightness and a healthy dose of playful ribbing.

Like trying to herd cats, Yung tries to move things along. She has a babysitter waiting and has to get home.

Team member Revant Kumar retrieves the car, walks by me and says with a grin, “There’s a time when we have to leave, and a time when we actually have to leave.”

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