A palpable sense of excitement was in the air as the first-graders gathered at the starting line with the rocket cars they had designed and built for races down the hallway of Allard Elementary School in Moon.
Powered by the rushing air of deflating balloons, the little cars zoomed down the hallway with varying degrees of success.
The winning vehicle traveled 12 feet and belonged to Brenden Luffey.
Other cars raced for just several inches, and a few didn't move at all. But whether the cars moved one inch or one foot didn't lessen the joy of the educational activity.
The rocket cars were built by the elementary students as part of the school's five-day Science and Math Olympiad last week.
The rectangular bodies and wheels of the rocket cars were cut from foam containers, said first-grade teacher Karen Chodikov. Plastic beverage stirrers were used as axles for the wheels.
Students inserted drinking straws into the necks of balloons, and the air was released to propel the cars.
At least, that was the way it was supposed to work. When Brenden tried to power his car a second time for a victory lap at the end of the competition, his racer wouldn't move. He had blown into the straw to inflate the balloon, but by the time he put the car down on the track, the balloon had deflated.
Brenden inspected his car and announced that the balloon had a hole, which ordinarily would have been disappointing -- but not in this case, because it was part of the science lesson.
Other students inspected their cars and discovered that their straws had little cracks that allowed some or all of the air to leak out before it reached the balloon, thus reducing the amount of propulsion.
A jubilant Dawson Gingerella was the second-place finisher. He was happy because, like Brenden, he was given an opportunity for an extra run after the competition. For his second try, Dawson's car traveled 19 feet.
The Science and Math Olympiad is an annual event at Allard and all of the more than 200 students participate, said Principal Jim McElroy.
"There's a different theme each year, and this year 'space' is the theme," said Mr. McElroy, who was wearing a tie emblazoned with the planets.
Allard's program was enhanced this year because the school won a $1,500 grant from The Society of Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh.
The grant was used to bring in two programs from the Carnegie Science Centers: A Space Encounters program was presented one day, and an inflatable Unisphere Planetarium was brought to the school on another day.
Other activities and projects included games of Space Jeopardy and a math-themed scavenger hunt. Students designed and built a number of items displayed throughout the halls of the school, including sun and planet mobiles, rocket ships, aliens and model space stations.
Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-3064.