Talk about your "funny cars."
This one had twin LP records for rear wheels, 45-rpm singles in front, a wood block chassis -- and a drive-train powered by a mousetrap.
The "pit crew," a team of students from Fallstaff Middle School in Baltimore, hovered over the odd-looking vehicle, positioned it at the starting line, and sprang the trap.
And, after wobbling forward for a few seconds in a wide arc, the mousetrap car rolled to a halt, far short of the finish line, but a triumph of gadgetry, nonetheless.
"The reason it didn't get as far as we would have gotten was because the wheels weren't aligned," said Roland Brooks, a Fallstaff eighth-grader and a member of the team.
Last week, Roland and about 300 other students from around the state gathered at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland for the sixth annual Maryland Middle School Science Olympiad.
The Olympiad is intended to boost interest in science, a hard-sell among American students. Participants from Baltimore and several counties participated in the competition, which featured a series of matchups to demonstrate principles of physics, chemistry and other subjects.
Among them: aerodynamics demonstrations featuring paper airplanes, a model bridge-building contest and an egg-drop competition to test durable packaging.
When the event concluded, the winning students from Bennett Middle School in Wicomico County, and Hamilton and Roland Park middle schools in Baltimore, were awarded Olympic-style medals and trophies for their schools.
In May, the top winner, Bennett Middle School, is to compete in the National Science Olympiad in Kansas City, Mo.
"We want to have them use their skills, we want to show them that science is fun -- and we want to give them the kind of recognition that is often accorded only to athletes," said Andrea Bowden, curriculum specialist with the city schools.
The emphasis on science comes at a time when educators are warning of a crisis in math and science education nationally.
According to a recent report by a state Task Force on Mathematics, Science and Technology, the nation faces a shortage of 1 million scientists and engineers by the year 2010.
In Maryland, only 4 percent of college and university undergraduates major in science, mathematics or technology-related subjects, the report states.
Meanwhile, many secondary school teachers say students shun science courses.
"They think it's dull, they think it's boring, they think it's just books," said Natalie Alamdar, a seventh-grade science teacher Hampstead Hill Middle School in Baltimore.
But when students participate in the Olympiad, "they see that science can be fun," she said.
The event requires a high level of commitment from the students, who train in teams in preparation for the individual events.
"We practice every Friday, it's like a treat for them to do the activities," said Elizabeth Palmer, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Pittsville Elementary/Middle School in Wicomico County.
And the events themselves reinforce what the students learn in the classroom, she noted. "They are thinking on their feet; they're using what I'm teaching them."