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Sept. 18, 2000

John Bluck

NASA Ames Research Center, Silicon Valley, CA

(Phone: 650/604-5026, 650/604-9000)

Vito Chiala

Foothill High School, San Jose, CA

(Phone: 408/-928-9114)


NOTE TO EDITORS AND NEWS DIRECTORS: You are invited to observe student wind tunnel tests of a soap-box derby-like car Wednesday, Sept. 20 and Thursday, Sept. 21, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. PDT, both days, at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA. To reach Ames, take the Moffett Field exit from Highway 101, drive east to the main gate at Moffett Federal Airfield and report to the visitor badging office for maps and directions to Bldg. N215. U.S. media representatives must have valid picture ID in order to enter Ames. Foreign media representatives must be escorted.


Alternative high school students from San Jose, CA, will test a modern soap box derby racecar in a NASA wind tunnel on Sept. 20 and 21 to learn about aerodynamics.

On Sunday, Sept. 24, the students, from Foothill High School, San Jose, will race the car in the fourth annual Sand Hill Challenge in Menlo Park, CA, which begins at 8:30 a.m. PDT.

"Because we are an alternative high school, our overall mission is to teach science in alternative ways," said Foothill teacher and robotics team leader Vito Chiala. He and teacher Jeneva Westendorf instruct more than 80 sophomores, juniors and seniors about robots. "Students in our school have traditionally not learned well from books, so what we do is a lot of hands-on science and a lot of mentoring with professional engineers and workers. This method really piques student interest," Chiala said.

"NASA's role in this project will be to assess the aerodynamics (drag and flow characteristics) of the car and offer simple solutions on possible changes to the vehicle's shape," said engineer Dale Satran of NASA Ames Research Center, which is located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. Satran is advising students about the wind tunnel tests that will be in the Ames 7-ft. by 10-ft. wind tunnel in Bldg. N215. The racer is about 2 ft. by 2 ft. and 13 feet long.

The 7-ft. by 10-ft. wind tunnel is operated by the U.S. Army Aeroflightdynamics Directorate, and the Army will provide the operational staff and technical support for the student wind tunnel tests.

"We want to introduce this year’s class to scientific methods early on in the school year. We decided to participate in the Sand Hill Challenge as a way to begin the process," Chiala said. Although 80 students are involved in the project, only 20 will go to the wind tunnel tests. "We are planning to videotape the tests, and a NASA engineer will come to our school to help teach the other students about aerodynamics," Chiala added.

"During the wind tunnel tests, a belly pan will be evaluated along with other options of sealing the interior of the vehicle from the outside airflow," said Kevin James, NASA engineer in charge of the tests. "The lift and drag of the vehicle will be measured by the tunnel scale system." The tunnel scale is an external balance that uses weight scales to measure forces and torque.

"Flow visualization using tufts (small strings taped to the car) and smoke will be used to identify areas where the airflow separates from the vehicle. Presentations will be given to make the students aware of the basic physics involved in the aerodynamics of the race car," Satran added.

"We won’t have time to make alterations to the car for this year’s race, but this is a tremendous learning experience for the students, and it is possible that we could make changes to the vehicle for next year’s race," Chiala said. "Our real hope overall is that these wind tunnel tests will also help the students learn about aerodynamics for their other robotics projects. Our students have been successful in learning from these methods. We won first place in the U.S. First Robotics national contest in April," Chiala explained.

Peter Johnson, a model maker, a designer and a machinist from Redwood City, CA, built the car. "The car ran in the first two Sand Hill Challenges," said Johnson. "I retired, and I built a new car for another outfit. The car the students are now using had been semi-retired, even though it is still a competitive car."

The competition is a modern soap box derby race open to all high schools, national and international firms involved in entrepreneurial business, including venture capitalists, law firms and startup companies, according to the event’s official web site,



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