While digging around the Internet for an interactive site on vertebrates, I found a nice collection of interactive simulations on the Berkeley website, courtesy of the Lawrence Hall of Science. Now when it comes to interactivity, websites are a dime a dozen, but when it’s an interactive simulation, that actually makes good on simulating real world applicable ideas, that’s a rare gem.
In this case the “diamond in the rough” happens to be an excellent simulation of determining the cost, fuel, and mileage efficiency of an automobile. The SEPUP Car Comparison allows the user to choose between body styles (compact, sports, sedan, etc.), tires, engine sizes, and at what speed the vehicle will travel. It also allows you to assemble two unique automobiles so you can compare (hence the comparison part in the title) how well different components affect the performance of the vehicle. AND, if that wasn’t enough, it’s actually a fun simulation that uses stylized drawings, and actually shows the cars whizzing around a track. No setting the parameters only to click a “perform test” button and be delivered instant results. Students can actually watch as the90 mph sports car repeated laps the slow poke van plodding along at 50 mph.
So what’s the use of this tool other than watching the pretty animations? Well, after each race is complete you’re provided with an estimate of many miles the vehicles traveled after using up one gallon of gas, and gives you a plethora of options to alter that number. Want to see if changing the cruising speed will consume less gas and make the vehicle go farther? You can choose between 3 different speeds. Want to see if the type of engine will affect how far you go? Choose between a 4, 6, or 8 cylinder engine, including a hybrid engine. Or say you’re more interested in cost efficiency. Figure out how costly the car and all is parts are, and then compare the cost to the overall performance. The beauty of racing two cars at once is that one can serve as a control, while you tweak and alter variables on the second car, allowing for a rather scientific approach. You could even gather data and create graphs, charts, or databases of information.
The activity itself is geared towards elementary age students with its bright colors and “cute” noises, but I know my middle schoolers would have loved trying out and testing every single permutation and variable while racing their vehicles. We could have spent an entire week talking about the scientific method, how important it is to maintain a control vehicle, and possibly even finding real life facsimiles of the cars we had created, so that we could compare the official EPA mileage to our own. There’s a world of possibilities if you’re just willing to dig beneath the flashy surface and the “kid friendly” veneer.