Organic STEM Learning: DIY Go-Kart Project

I had this one on my mind for a while before starting anything: I thought it would be great to make a go-kart with my kids—fun to build, fun to drive. But I hesitated because I didn’t want to pursue something canned and boring. I wanted us to get our hands dirty: something that could be a real “do-it-yourself” effort. At the same time, neither my kids nor I had any experience with cars or metalworking, so I felt that some guide would be needed to keep us on the path to a good finish. Eventually I found and settled on a particular design (“Live-Axle Standard Kit,” see https://kartfab.com/live-axle-go-kart-plans) as a good fit for what I had in mind.

Would they get bored when it didn’t materialize the first day?

One question I mulled over was whether my kids were ready for such a project. Would they feel inspired and want to be involved in the building of the kart, or would they get bored when it didn’t materialize the first day? I thought back to a couple years before, when we had ordered loft beds for the boys, then aged 4 and 7. I had spent about five hours assembling the two beds with the boys helping; during the whole time, they remained engaged and substantially helpful. I think I could honestly say that I couldn’t have done it without them. On the basis of this and a few similar experiences, I decided we had decent odds in the interest department. This project became the kids’ main Christmas present for 2017. We started work on December 26. According to the designer of the go-kart, the project should take about 3 days to complete. I figured that, because of our inexperience, we could triple that estimate. So…getting a good start during winter break, working on a few Saturdays in January…I figured we could have a car we could drive by, say…the end of January. Nice.

What I didn’t count on was the learning curve. For example, going into the project, here are some of the things I didn’t know:

  • Where do you go to buy pieces of raw steel? (This one wasn’t intuitive: The answer is not your local hardware store and it’s not Amazon.)
  • How do you cut steel? (The go-kart directions say, “Use an angle grinder.” OK, I guess we’re getting one of those…)
  • How do you weld? (Well, how hard can it be? I can watch Youtube videos and practice…)

There’s a moment where you have to step out and just try it.

So we hit the ground running, trying to run, stumbling and tripping. How do you go from being a metalworking virgin to cutting steel? Well, after you’ve read the directions and watched a few video segments, there’s a moment where you have to step out and just try it. You thumb the pressure switch on the grinder and gingerly bring it into contact with the metal, whereupon it promptly throws off a cloud of sparks. You jerk back and let go. Rinse and repeat.

Finally, I grabbed my oldest son and asked him to stand ten feet away from me. “Just watch me, and if my pants start to smoke, give me a yell.” He nodded and assumed his post attentively. My pants didn’t catch fire that day, nor the next. There were times when sparks heated up my shoe to the point where it felt uncomfortably hot, but never any flames. Eventually, I relaxed.

You can’t get good at a tool until you’ve stopped being afraid of it.

Use of proper protection is key!

This speaks to an important aspect of these activities: They definitely can be dangerous. You can take off a finger, lose an eye, or suffer a third-degree burn. So we always took safety seriously: We wore the welding helmets, safety goggles, gloves, long sleeves, etc.–whatever the recommended safety procedure was, we did it. Having taken the basic safety precautions, we were then free to get used to these tools. I am of the opinion that you can’t get good at a tool until you’ve stopped being afraid of it. Ideally, you respect the power of that tool and don’t get complacent; but you can’t really become competent when you’re feeling like you’re walking on eggshells. So you have to get accustomed. But before then, on the cusp of Square One, you have to close your eyes and jump for the first time, and that’s always an unnerving experience.

I took the plunge, then I introduced my kids. We plugged away at it. The hardest part was welding. Eventually, I decided that I needed to be the one to do the welding: As much as I wanted to include the kids, I realized that the learning curve was much too high, and we needed to work the payoff into the equation at some point. Involving kids ages 7-13 in the “real” welding would have stretched the timeline more than I felt was wise. So, in the end, the kids were involved in “real” parts of every activity except welding.

My perspective at the get-go was: “We want to use welding for just this project. I don’t plan on becoming a professional. Let’s just get a cheap, well-reviewed welder from Amazon—how much would that be?–and use it.” This, I did, buying a GoPlus MiG-130 welder for $100. What I couldn’t know at the time was that my purchase of a flux-core welder made the learning curve more difficult (kind of like learning to drive on a stick-shift instead of an automatic), and that buying a cheap tool from Asia was subject to a few pitfalls (badly-written documentation, or the fact that the tool arrived with a MiG welding tip that handicapped my flux-core welds for two months until I finally wised up and threw it away).

Someone’s excited!

The first phase of the project was slow. By late February, the go-kart’s frame was done. Around March 10, we set that frame aside, went back to Queen City Steel and bought some more carbon steel tubing. We also bought an inexpensive chop saw and a can-do clamp. Then we set about building Frame 2.0. After two days of work, that effort—a great improvement over the first—was complete.

We Need a New Approach

I was very impressed with my two boys: Aged 7 and 10, they proved remarkably engaged throughout the project. They stayed interested, wanting to be involved and helpful when I asked, longer than I would have expected. They stuck around through the tedious exploration of details, dead-end attempts, and experimentation that eventually paid off. For example, once we were having trouble drilling holes through some steel tubing. After about 5 hours of work with the hand drill and numerous broken titanium drill bits, this effort was only about one-third complete. I concluded, “We need a new approach.” After some research, I finally hit upon a 19th-Century technique that preceded the invention of the electric motor; it proved a better approach than the drill. (See https://makezine.com/projects/3-drill-that-can-make-a-hole-in-anything/ for my inspiration.) This is the kind of stuff you don’t forget: You earn it through your effort, and when you learn what works, it sticks in your mind permanently.

Technique in action

Phase 2 of the project went quickly. After building up some basic metalworking chops and learning the ropes, we could make some tracks; and more often than not, my intuitions about the project proved to be correct. Progress was faster and my confidence was growing. (I don’t know if my boys ever doubted that we would cross the finish line, but I sure did. That was my nightmare scenario: that we would waste a lot of time, effort and money, have nothing to show for it, and that my kids would be forever disappointed that Dad couldn’t pull it off. Kind of a Black Father’s Day picture.)

Fit and fitting

Phase 3, the homestretch, proved to be…not so speedy! This is where it all comes together: For example, a couple of those holes we’d drilled in December, in the final assembly, turned out to be half an inch apart, and there was no room to drill a new hole. What to do now? Eventually, through constant musing and many sleepless nights, I was able to navigate every technical problem that came our way.

Around May 25, I was finally able to start the engine, sit on the cart, and feel it jerk forward.

And, around May 25, I finally was able to start the engine, sit on the cart, and feel it jerk forward. The first time, I was so distracted I forgot about the engine cutoff switch and almost crashed. This kicked off Phase 4: “What parts of the go-kart don’t really work?” By June 10, we had a kart we could drive around our neighborhood, although it was mid-August before the kart could be driven for an hour without some sort of mechanical mishap.

The engineers convene

Driving the kart was…a lot of fun! Funny thing: It felt just like the go-karts at Disneyland’s Autopia ride, with one exception: When you step down on the accelerator of an Autopia car, nothing happens. When you step down on the pedal of our go-kart, it begins to pick up speed and you get a sense that there’s a lot more where that came from. I’m talking about margin. Using my phone’s GPS sensor, I measured the kart’s top speed at 24 mph. When I see my youngest son driving, I sometimes still cringe (he’s a bit reckless), but I can more or less live with that number.

Also around this time, we began what you might call Phase 4.5: “Where do we drive this thing?” We took it on numerous test drives around our block. Each of us drove it, including my youngest son, now 8 years old. I insisted on being present. I watched my kids drive it and exhorted them to keep an eye on the road, and they always behaved responsibly. But I was acutely conscious that if a cop were to come along, he might not have kids of his own, might insist on making a legal issue of it and I ought to be around if that happened.

Kart in action!

I spent some time looking at Google Maps and scouting out remote roads, but I was never really satisfied. (Imagine an unpaved fire road behind a gate bearing a county-issued NO TRESPASSING sign. There are some problems with this picture.) Eventually, a friend of ours suggested that we take it to the parking lot at the Rose Bowl. Besides being only a mile or two from our house, this turned out to be a great suggestion. The employee lot at the Rose Bowl is about a quarter-mile long, sparsely populated (on non-event days), and open to the public. Lots of student drivers use it for practice; we figured we’d join them. The activity isn’t illegal, being removed from public roads; neither does it look nor feel unsafe, irresponsible, etc. Cops cruise by at intervals and keep driving. Our kids can drive as fast as they want (up to 24 mph), as long as they want, and then we go home. (A bonus: After the kart was complete, we measured it and discovered it would fit into the back of my wife’s Toyota Highlander. No need even to buy a trailer.)

So, that brings us to…well, it’s basically that Father’s Day card/Norman Rockwell-style image we can all imagine. With one difference, which is that this whole experience changed us. The project took much longer, was way harder and way cooler than I had ever imagined. I knew before we ever got going that it was going to be a piece of work, but was surprised by how quickly the payoffs came, even while the ultimate payoff remained a mirage on the horizon. It feels great to have this one done, and I can’t express how I feel when I see how happy my kids look when they’re driving that go-kart. Heck, we all have that smile on our faces, even me: This vehicle is way more fun than commuting to work in my 2014 Honda Civic.

Yep, definitely more fun than my Civic!

The whole experience piqued my interest. In addition to the crash-course in metalworking and go-kart building that I had, I’ve also taken the time to familiarize myself with a number of automotive concepts. I know how a four-stroke engine works now, and I can appreciate all of the fundamental differences between that go-kart the cars we drive (e.g., a differential). I find myself pondering a possible go-kart 2.0 project: one with not only a differential, but a multi-speed transmission, suspension system (maybe even active suspension controlled by our own software?). The sky’s the limit; we just need a goal that’s ambitious enough.

In the meantime, we’ve been amusing ourselves putting our metalworking chops to work on smaller efforts, such as medieval weaponry….

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