Carson High engineering teacher’s Pinewood Derby motivates students

Carson High School junior Omar Munoz refines his racing car in engineering teacher Collin Belnap’s class for the Pinewood Derby activity his students participated in last week. (Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal )

Carson High School junior Omar Munoz refines his racing car in engineering teacher Collin Belnap’s class for the Pinewood Derby activity his students participated in last week. (Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal )

Carson High School junior Omar Munoz lined up his block racing car against his three competitors’ on a track with a steep start just before the launch. Munoz launched the cars, making excellent time across Carson High teacher Collin Belnap’s classroom on video, zipping across the room and recording the results with their cell phones and watching first-, second-, third- and fourth-place finishes come in as quickly as they began.
The Pinewood Derby always makes a great diversion mid-semester for first- and second-year students in engineering. For some students, the annual Pinewood Derby is a test of functionality. For others, it’s a thrill to see how fast they could go with their own creations. Whether they’re struggling or succeeding, students find a niche with computer-aided design, building with power tools and learning the fundamentals to earn their Occupational Safety and Health Administration 10 certification.
Collin Belnap, architectural and civil engineering instructor for Carson High, teaches the first and second years of the program and says most students rarely go beyond these levels. Those who do continue will finish years three and four with Mark Lobsinger, who leads the mechanical engineering classes.
But to get to the Pinewood Derby in the second semester in Belnap’s classes, most students have to apply themselves earlier in the year. Most already will have completed their OSHA-10 and learned how to use the power tools to create their racecars.
“You’re taking kids from zero to know they’re creating something,” Belnap said. “And the really cool thing for me … the kid whose car was fastest yesterday struggles in school. It’s hard for him. It’s not a lack of effort. He’s just pedaling as fast as he can.”
Belnap said he rewarded the student for winning a race with his fast car with a trophy he’d made there in his classroom with “25 cents’ worth of material.”
“It was like I handed him an Oscar, and he said, ‘I get the trophy?’ ” Belnap said. “I want every kid at some point to have that experience, to be the guy that got to be the subject matter expert, to say, ‘I was the best at this.’”
Using the software Autodesk, provided to Carson High’s engineering program for free that normally might have been about $1,200 to $1,500, Belnap said students typically spend the first semester just learning how to use it to design what they’re making and creating concepts. Belnap said just having that software is a gift he and the school appreciate because it opens up doors for the students.
Recruiting young women for the engineering courses is always a key challenge, too. About 95% of Belnap’s classes remain male students, so the push toward equity is important to encourage the females that the pathways for civil or electrical engineering don’t necessarily have to lend themselves to visual or kinesthetic learning but can be creative or artistic as well.
“Some of my best students over the years have been young women,” Belnap said. “I ask them, ‘Are you creative? Do you like to build stuff?’ I like for it to go from it being an idea to holding it in your hand.”
CHS Vice Principal Amy Freismidl who oversees the school’s Career and Technical Education program said Belnap’s instruction helps students apply the curriculum in meaningful, real-world ways. These courses also have fostered new interests and helped them decide what to major in heading in college, she said.
“We’ve had students are either in engineering or health science and different paths or programs and they have gone into these classes in the last two years go into civil and electrical engineering,” she said. “It’s really exciting.”
She also noted Belnap and Lobsinger’s teaching styles. While different instructionally, they’re beneficial for the visual and kinesthetic learners. She also pushed the non-traditional path for all students, adding the exploratory, hands-on nature that allows them to build objects appeals to them more.
Belnap said despite this year’s circumstances with the pandemic, he still feels “really, really fortunate” to show students they can learn and try whatever they want if they apply themselves.
“Whatever your brain can dream up, we can probably build in this class, and if we can’t build it in this class, go to third- and fourth-year engineering where we have the CNC (computer numerical control) machine and we can build it out of aluminum,” he said. “It’s just to get it across to all my students that everything you see, touch and feel that is occurring in nature was designed in engineering and somebody had to think it up.”
For information about Carson High’s CTE program, visit


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