JANESVILLE

String has limited potential energy.

Bungee cords, on the other hand, have more potential energy than a classroom full of fourth-graders.

Monterey Stadium was full of potential energy Wednesday as the Janesville School District kicked off its annual citywide fourth grade track meet.

The track, field and stands trembled with the stored excitement of kids who have been practicing for weeks for an event. Think performing in a school play combined with a field trip, an extra recess and a snow day—that kind of energy.

The events included sprints, hurdles, medicine ball and softball throw, high jump, long jump, and jumping up and down, with the last not being a judged event. Students participated to the best of their abilities, and the lessons of the day included how to be a graceful winner and a good loser.

For Sarah Carlson-Reed’s fourth grade class, the meet was a chance to showcase their science knowledge, engineering prowess—and kindness.

Tracey Feuling, who specializes in adaptive special education, and Brenda Wenzel, a physical education teacher, challenged the Lincoln Elementary School students to make adaptive equipment so their classmates in wheelchairs could participate in the day’s events.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Carlson-Reed said. “We’re working on force, energy and motion in class, so this was perfect.”

Between her track and field events, 10-year-old Adria Guadarrama explained the process.

“Well, we designed things, and then we got into small groups to talk about what was the best design,” Adria said. “Then we measured the trays on the wheelchairs and tried stuff out. The eyebolts stored the energy, and when you pulled, like, the rubber band back, it sent the ball forward.”

This was difficult for us to understand, so we asked for clarification.

Adria explained that her classmate Mae Colcord uses a wheelchair.

“I tried to think how I would want it to be for me if I was Mae,” Adria said.

The chosen design, Adria said, featured a bungee cord attached to two eyebolts. At the center of the bungee cord was a plastic cup that held a ball.

When Mae pulled the cord back and then let it go, the ball launched into the air.

See how potential energy becomes kinetic energy? Yes, now we understood.

The students also received help from a mechanical engineer, Brad Carlson, aka Carlson-Reed’s dad.

He drove from the Twin Cities to meet with the kids, analyze their design and help them with construction—i.e. using the drill, attaching the eyebolts and testing the mechanism. He even drew real engineering sketches.

“The first time, they used string instead of bungee cord,” Carlson-Reed said.

Does string possess kinetic energy?

Yes, but not enough for serious competition.

The bungee cord was better.

Mae, with help from Feuling, was able to launch a small red playground ball Wednesday. She seemed to be having a pretty good time and gave the activity a grin and a thumbs-up.

The students also designed an adaptive device for the Frisbee throw.

At the other end of the field, fourth-grader Rigg Sievers was using an adaptive device for the softball throw.

Well, it was sort of an adaptive device. It was actually a Nerf gun, and Rigg was laughing and grinning and firing it with the help of teacher Kathy White.

White leads a group of Marshall Middle School students who solve real-world problems in a workshop known as a makerspace. They, too, have designed adaptive devices for classmates with disabilities. Two of their mechanisms for throwing balls were on display, both a variation on a traditional catapult.

According to Scientific American magazine (yes, we had to look this up): “When you prepare the catapult to launch, you add energy to it.” That energy is potential energy. When you trigger the catapult, that potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy—or the energy of motion.

The science lesson applies to kindness, too: Potential kindness combined with the energy of fourth-graders becomes kindness in motion.

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