Secondary science - Bumper cars

A serious lesson on safety and crumple zones can be given a fun twist. Gregor Steele gives the view from Scotland

Gregor Steele

The TV programme Pimp my Ride takes a standard car and customises it with a fancy paint job and a sound system that could qualify as a weapon of mass destruction.

Pimp My Trolley started as a joke between myself and a colleague at SSERC, the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre, which tests equipment, offers health and safety advice, runs courses and devises innovative practical work for Scottish science teachers. It invites pupils to take a standard physics cart and make it safer.

When the draft outcomes of the new Curriculum for Excellence came out, one of them put the study of forces into the context of vehicle design. Pimp My Trolley became the title of an activity SSERC developed to support this outcome. It is aimed at children around the ages of 14 to 15.

One piece of apparatus we had in for evaluation was a wireless accelerometer - a device that can be attached to a moving object to relay information via Bluetooth to a laptop, rather like the telemetry Formula 1 engineers use to look at vehicle performance data.

The manufacturer suggested it could be used to investigate crumple zones, the area at the front of a vehicle designed to absorb impact if it crashes.

We tried this out, taking a photograph for our bulletin of a dynamics trolley fitted with a homemade bumper and captioning it Pimp My Trolley.

We gave teams of pupils a variety of materials with which to fashion a bumper or crumple zone. They then fitted this to a trolley carrying the wireless accelerometer. The pimped trolley runs down a ramp and crashes into a block. The resulting motion is graphed using the interfacing software that allows the accelerometer and laptop to talk to each other. The winning team is the one that produces the smallest deceleration in the collision. Pupils are challenged not only on the physics of collisions, but also on what we mean by car safety. For whom is the car safe? The driver? Passengers? Pedestrians? What can the driver do to keep safe, and do safer cars encourage less responsible driving?

We did wonder about such a seemingly flippant title for a serious subject, a subject that could have unpleasant resonances for a large number of pupils. In the end, we wanted the activity to be memorable and to encourage pupils getting their first car to think about safety, not just about style.

SSERC encourages teachers to try activities out and give feedback to the centre. Pimp My Trolley has been so successful in helping pupils to understand the concepts involved, that they have been talking about it for days afterwards.

The wireless accelerometer used in Pimp My Trolley is a fairly new piece of equipment, not yet widely used in schools. One teacher who has tried the experiment was involved with the Institute of Physics, an organisation with whom SSERC works closely. They funded the purchase of a kit to be lent to schools around the south of Scotland.

At the same time, the education division of Road Safety Scotland heard about the experiment and I was asked to demonstrate Pimp My Trolley to groups of road safety officers around the country.

The body has now funded another two kits consisting of accelerometers and laptops.

Teachers wishing to try Pimp My Trolley for themselves should contact SSERC, which can supply workcards, teacher guides and technician notes as well as helping to arrange the loan of equipment.

Though developed for the new curriculum, it fits well with the transport section in standard grade physics and with mechanics at intermediate 2.

Or why not go for a seasonal variation at Christmas, as one teacher from Dundee did, with Pimp My Sleigh?

Gregor Steele is an education support officer for SSERC.

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Gregor Steele

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