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Students, start your engines: A day exploring STEAM at the North Wilkesboro Speedway

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  • Start your engines! 1,800 Wilkes County Schools middle schoolers joined in hands-on STEAM activities while exploring future educational opportunities and exploring career interests at this special event.
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“Three – two – one – go!”

At the North Wilkesboro Speedway, bystanders hear the start of a race. The announcer watches as the three competitors strike fast, moving quick to see who can get to the finish line first.

“Oh we got somebody blazing!” the announcer exclaims, as the race is over in eight seconds flat.

Example of hands-on activities at the North Wilkesboro Speedway STEAM event March 26, 2024. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Our announcer f0r the race was really an employee with Wilkes Community College, helping out with the Building Construction Technology program experience. And our three racers? Middle school students from Wilkes County Schools trying their hand at hammering a nail.

Last week, 1,800 students entered the gates of the historic raceway for a day exploring science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM). The track’s infield was divided into five sections, each dedicated to a subject in the acronym STEAM. More than 24 organizations hosted interactive displays for students to explore a variety of potential careers in STEAM as well as the motorsports industry.

Students participated in activities such as building sling-shot cars to become familiar with factors like wheel alignment, energy transformation, elastic energy drag, and aerodynamics.

They were able to imagine being in a pit crew, learning to change tires at the US Legends Cars experience. Two drivers, middle schoolers themselves, were there to answer questions and show off their fleet of bandoleros.

Students worked with drones, played crack-the-code games, raced remote control cars with GM Motorsports, and so much more.

Wilkes Community College (WCC) had over 10 different departments represented, giving students exposure to their programs and allowing them to participate in some real-world classroom activities.

Neal Triplett, chair of math, science, and engineering at WCC, asked students as they walked up: “Do you think metal can catch on fire?” Even with 100% humidity, Triplett was able to create a memorable chemistry experience for students.

“I think it has been a resounding success. The students seem excited, they are engaged with everything that’s going on. I hope this is the inaugural of many more STEAM days at the North Wilkesboro Speedway,” Triplett said.

The energy was high despite rainy conditions, as students engaged full throttle in hands-on activities.

This was the first STEAM Expo at the North Wilkesboro track, but hopefully not the last, said Joe Bullis, executive director of career and technical education (CTE) and federal programs for Wilkes County Schools. He is a native of Wilkes County and has worked for the school district for 24 years.

“I never thought in my lifetime, a place where I used to go and and have picnics on the weekends right before a race with my best friend, [that] I would come back later and be hosting 1,800 middle school students and showing them this is what it is now.”

Joe Bullis, executive director of career and technical education at Wilkes County Schools

This expo event is significant for many reasons, as Bullis explained. A few years ago, no one could have imaged this — the STEAM event or the reopening of the speedway.

This iconic track dates back to 1947 and the beginning of NASCAR itself. Junior Johnson, among other legendary racers, called Wilkes County home, and the track brought in racing fans from all over for 60 years before it closed its gate for good in 1996.

The track had sat all but dormant until a revitalization effort took hold at the beginning of 2022. The legendary track hosted the 2023 NASCAR All-Star race and became a homecoming North Carolinian race fans had been dreaming of. The school district’s four high schools bands came together and played the national anthem at the event, ringing in a new era for the raceway.

Wilkes County Schools Superintendent Mark Byrd and Bullis both agree one of the main reasons for this STEAM Expo event is the determination of Alex Baucom, an administrative intern at Millers Creek Elementary. Baucom is a former CTE teacher, and he took his students during a Summer Bridge program to a STEAM Expo at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Once he saw what the STEAM Expo program could entail, and with the newly renovated and reopened speedway in Wilkesboro, he was moved to get the same experience for all Wilkes middle school students.

Bullis applied and received a federal grant for career accelerator camps, and this STEAM Expo is their kick-off to the series. He cites the support and partnership of the Wilkes Economic Development Corporation, which facilitated conversations between vendors and community members, as another ingredient to this event’s success.

“It’s really community, it’s business, and education coming together for an event for those students,” Bullis said.

Baucom believes this experience allows students to come explore the racetrack while also exploring career interests.

“We’re planting the seed, I hope, in the minds of these students. So as they grow, and as they reach their goals, and they become productive members of society, they will value that memory and value this place to where they can continue to perpetuate what’s been started here recently.”

Joe Bullis, executive director of career and technical education at Wilkes County Schools
Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.