This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Look just about anywhere in the county lately, and you might see a souped-up soapbox car.

At First United Methodist Church in Lenoir, it’s in the basement, surrounded by uniformed Boy Scouts working on their engineering merit badges.

At Collettsville School, it’s flying down the sidewalk, with eighth-grader Chelsy Isenhour in the driver’s seat.

At Hudson Middle School, there are two of them, lofted on classroom countertops.

At Gamewell Middle, it’s mounted on a paint-splattered worktable in a drafty supply room, sharing space with old textbooks and primary-colored rolls of paper.

“This is our lair,” teacher Brad Bartlett said as he led visitors into the room to see his team’s car – which is almost ready for the third annual N.C. Gravity Games April 13 in downtown Lenoir.

Sponsored by Google and Appalachian State, the Gravity Games are sort of like a soapbox derby – but it’s more engineering-intensive, and there’s more room for creativity.

The rules in the gravity-only division, which most Caldwell teams chose, are pretty simple: Don’t use anything but gravity to get yourself down the hill.

The games are meant to give kids from around the state a chance to learn engineering principles in a way that busts outside rote classroom learning.

And in Caldwell, that kind of exposure to engineering can prepare kids for a global, technology-powered economy, said Enoch Moeller, operations manager at Google’s Lenoir data center.

“The traditional industry in this area was manufacturing,” Moeller said. “What we’re hoping to demonstrate to these kids is that there are other opportunities out there, that there are other jobs.”

The experience arms kids with skills they need in the new economy, said Bartlett, the Gamewell Middle teacher.

“Engineers are problem-solvers,” Bartlett said, glancing out the corner of his eye at eighth-grader Shelton Toverud, who was adjusting a screw. “And we want to encourage people to be engineers.”

As teams across the county prepare for the games, that problem-solving happens minute-by-minute. Team members are constantly throwing out ideas, asking questions and sometimes answering them in the same breath.

Most of the questions are strictly build-related: Is the steering too loose? Is it curving too much? Do we need a bumper on the back – could we use memory foam for that?

But some are more apprehensive.

“I wanna know,” Boy Scout Aaron Laws said seriously on Tuesday, “how you get it completely stopped.”

Laws’s teammates quickly assured him there were hay bales at the end of the track.

There’s no one type of kid who gets involved with a Gravity Games team. They’re all there for different reasons.

At Hudson Middle, Spencer Teague explained that he has loved building things – “pretty much anything I can get my hands on” – for as long as he can remember.

Beside him was eighth-grader Ben Campbell, who joined because he loves any and all kinds of racing (though his favorites are NASCAR and oval track).

Teague and Campbell have car-building colleagues all over the state. There are Girl Scout troops, police departments, families and schools.

In Caldwell, teams have been tinkering and adjusting for weeks. Pretty soon, each will pick a driver who’ll go careening down the track, aided only by gravity. Winners will go home with everything from trophies to Android tablets.

But teachers and leaders just hope they’ve learned something, prize or not.

“For so many of them, it was the thrill of knowing that learning can be fun,” Bartlett said. “You know, so often they forget that learning can be fun.”