Blogger Amy Koester

Speed Racer Science at the Library

Photo by Amy Koester.

In my experience, children love things that go. The train set in my branch’s picture book area is always surrounded by choo-chooing kids; our race car books are perennially popular; and I’ve had to stop more than one pair of young friends from racing through the stacks to prove their speed. Thus it was a no-brainer for me to develop a Speed Racer Science program for school-age children at my library. Here’s what we did–I highly encourage you to take it and make it your own.

First, we talked about the science. The major scientific concept we discussed with regard to speeding vehicles was Newton’s First Law of Motion: an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force. I used a handy graphic from How Stuff Works to show this concept in a Prezi I projected onto our program wall. While we looked at some of the images in the Prezi, we talked about what “outside forces” cause various vehicles to go fast.

Next came the hands-on STEM work. Our opening discussion informed us that a key component to building a speedy vehicle is accommodating that “outside force” that will make it move. We built cars with sails; the force that would propel our vehicles was air, or the driver’s breath as he/she blew into the sail. We used a handful of basic materials to build our racers:

  • toilet paper tubes (I punched holes for the wheel axles and the mast)

    Photo by Amy Koester.
  • small dowels cut to 3″ (use 1/4″ or 3/8″ dowels, depending on your hole punch size)
  • washers (four per vehicle, to serve as wheels)
  • modeling clay (to keep wheels on their axels)
  • bendy straws (the masts)
  • cardstock (for the sails)
  • tape (to affix sails to the masts)
  • scissors (for cutting the sails)
  • markers (for decorating the vehicles)
Photo by Amy Koester.

We ended with the science in action. In our case, we set each speed racer at one end of a table and timed how long in took for the driver to blow it down the length of the table. Some children adjusted the shapes and sizes of their cars’ sails after a laborious first race; others hit upon a steady racing rhythm from the beginning. I deliberately had the children race one at a time; while it took a bit longer, a child was only ever in competition with him/herself. Our STEM activity was about grasping a science concept, not beating other kids in a race. All of my program attendees were really into it–they actively wanted to best their own records.

Kids checked out books on motion, speed, and racing. I like for everyone to leave my STEM programs with something in hand, be it a book, an activity, or something we made in the program (in this case, the racers). I find that taking something home helps reinforce the impact of the STEM concepts. I had a few kids come back to see me the week after the program to say they had raced their vehicles at home with their dads or had tried using a hair dryer for force. That’s what I call STEM programming success: a good time at the library that translates to fun and knowledge outside of the library.

Have you ever held races in your library? I’d love to hear details in the comments.


  1. Sue Daniels

    What a great idea! Not only are you creating a fun project for kids, but you are also teaching them important concepts! I am glad that it was a success for you 🙂

  2. Dana Walton

    I completely agree with you. Children love things that move, it fascinates them. When I was a little girl my dad was an engineer for CSX Transportation and he actually drove trains. I remember being so fascinated with him and thinking that is was so cool that he drove trains. I actually just wrote a children’s book, “Bo John’s Train” that’s about my dad and the impact he had on people while driving trains.

    That was a great idea letting the children make something that moves and then teaching them about the law of motion, what a fun activity!

  3. Michelle Peltier

    I haven’t done “races” per se, but I did a paper airplane program where we measured how far the planes flew. At the end, there were paper airplanes (and boomerangs) flying all over the place. We only had one eye-poking incident, so I’d call the hour a success!

  4. marian kujtan

    I teach a program called Science Kids at Oakville Public Library in Oakville Ontario Canada.
    I am always looking for new ideas and this is a great one, well done! My only comment is that toilet roll tubes are not very clean, (think about where they have been), and are not permitted to be used in crafts in Schools, Nursery Schools or Day Care Centers, because of contamination. I would use the inside of paper towel rolls cut in half, just a bit cleaner .

  5. ScienceKids

    Very cool experiment. Any time you combine fun with learning, the outcome is good. You were also helping to strengthen their lungs!

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