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Schoolchildren use BBC micro:bit to build country’s fastest rocket-powered car

Three schoolchildren from Sussex have won a national competition to find out who can build the country’s fastest rocket-powered car.

The teenagers finished first in the final of the BBC micro:bit Model Rocket Car Competition and will now watch the famous 1,000mph Bloodhound rocket car in action before it attempts to break the world land speed record in South Africa next year.

Tommy Smallbone, 13, Thomas Strudwick, 14, and Berry Lisicki, 13, used the BBC micro:bit mini-computer – developed in partnership with Microsoft – to build a foam model car that travelled at more than 48mph and win the contest, beating 28 other teams.

The team, from The Littlehampton Academy in West Sussex, saw its car finish more than 2mph faster than the second-placed entry – three children also from The Littlehampton Academy – at the Santa Pod Raceway in Podington, Bedfordshire – Europe’s first permanent drag racing venue.

Slim Jim, as the winning team was known, was also handed a £1,000 cheque for their school, with the runners-up taking home £500 and a £250 prize for third place – all donated by Microsoft.

“It’s hard to explain how it feels to win, as we only just managed to make a car in time for the qualifying round,” said Smallbone. “But watching Bloodhound next year will be amazing.

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Slim Jim (holding the cheque), the winning team from The Littlehampton Academy

Strudwick added: “We’ve spent three hours a night on this project over the past 10 days, as well as doing homework. Now we have a bit of money in the pot we can work on the next design. We want to build a model car that can go 700mph and get into the Guinness World Records – [the current record is 533.1mph and held by Joseph Whitaker School in Mansfield].”

The trio will now watch the Bloodhound supersonic car complete 250mph trial runs at Newquay Cornwall Airport next year before Scottish entrepreneur Richard Noble’s team travels to Africa to attempt to break the current land speed record of 763mph – set by Thrust SSC in the US desert 20 years ago. Bloodhound will try to hit speeds of 800mph.


The 1,000mph Bloodhound car

Aulden Dunipace, Director Education at the Bloodhound Project, said: “Bloodhound inspired a model rocket car. Thanks to Microsoft, we linked that with computer science and the BBC micro:bit project. Thanks to the British Army, we were able to offer 10,000 free rocket car kits to schools and create an army of rocketeers to run a regional race programme. Today is the culmination of all those partners engaging education through the Dendrite platform, enabling mass inspiration in computer science and science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) across UK schools. Our massive thanks to every school who took part in the race season.”

The school competition was launched on April 18, with pupils aged 11 to 16 building foam rocket cars powered by solid fuel rocket motors and entering them into qualifying rounds, before the final on Tuesday. The entrants raced their cars on a 50-metre drag strip before being given an hour to modify their vehicles for a second run.

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The winning car, which reached speeds of 48mph

To find out how fast their cars went, pupils programmed a BBC micro:bit device to capture real-time data – such as speed – from the vehicles and downloaded it using a Microsoft Office add-on. Using this data, the students tweaked their designs to make their car go as fast as possible.

“The micro:bit really impressed us; it produces very accurate data,” said Strudwick, who, along with his team, used specially designed wheels with fewer spokes to reduce weight and make their car go faster.

What is the BBC micro:bit?

  • Mini, progammable computer
  • Developed with 25 organisations, including Microsoft
  • Features a 5×5 LED display, accelerometer, compass, buttons, I/O pins, Micro USB plug, Bluetooth Low Energy antenna and external battery pack
  • Given free to every Year 7 student in the UK
  • One million devices handed out so far
  • Available to buy from Microsoft Store

Dave Coplin, Microsoft’s Chief Envisioning Officer, said: “We set out to make computer science fun and to inspire the next generation of technology innovators who can fill the STEM gap developing in the UK. It’s not every day that pupils get to build and fire a rocket car, and code a BBC micro:bit to capture data as it races down a track. The response to the competition has surpassed all our expectations. We’re absolutely delighted that nearly 600 schools took part, and that’s a testament to the hard work of the partners and the inspiration and enthusiasm of the pupils and their teachers.”

The micro:bit, which has already been handed to 800,000 youngsters across the UK free of charge, can now be bought online.

BBC micro:bit

The BBC micro:bit