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Physics of Mario Kart

From the television screen to the workshop to the streets. The University of Northern Iowa's Physics of Mario Kart camp brought the classic video game, "Super Mario Kart," to life. Eight high school students spent a week constructing life-sized Mario karts and took them to the walkways on campus for some friendly racing.

Andrew Stollenwerk, professor in the physics department and co-creator of the camp, said it was a good way to show interested students what physicists really do. "Sometimes people think physicists are always at the board, solving equations, but most of the time physicists are out there doing experiments. It would be good to dispel that stereotype."

The idea for the camp came to Stollenwerk and Tim Kidd, another professor in the physics department, from YouTube videos where people had constructed karts modeled after the game and then dressed as the characters and raced. "We can do that," said Stollenwerk, "and when the EPSCoR grant money came in for the camps, the money and the idea just fit."

Before camp started, Stollenwerk and Kidd, with the help of a few undergraduate volunteers, assembled the karts and wrote the computer code that would be used. After the karts were assembled and the code written and tested, the karts were broken down for the incoming campers to rebuild. Stollenwerk said the code took weeks to write, and the karts were more draining then he had predicted, but rewarding come camp day.

Although the campers didn't write the code, they were able to spend some time working with it, customizing it to their kart's needs. After the code was tweaked, the karts were constructed.

On the last day of camp, parents were invited to attend as the students assembled around the campanile where an obstacle course and racecourse had been built. The campers raced two karts, turning heads of onlookers as they passed.

Alex Corker, a junior majoring in physics, was a camp counselor and also helped build the karts before camp started. This being his first time teaching, he said it was a good experience, but a challenge. "It's different to be in the teaching position and instead of being a student." Corker said the biggest challenge was trying to find the balance that made for the best learning experience without camp being too intense for students who had little to no experience.

The camp is still a work in progress. This year, students were able to build and race the karts, but many of the main components that make Mario Kart the game that it is have yet to be included. A main feature of the game allows players to collect objects off the track that either give them a boost or can be used against their opponents. Stollenwerk said he would like to incorporate this function into their life-sized recreation. "It's something that is well within our ability to do; it's just a mater of time and resources." He said next year's camp could see these added features.

Now that camp is finished, the karts are either going to be disassembled and placed in storage for next year, or be used in recruiting for the physics department. Although, Stollenwerk said, the karts could help trim some time off his campus commute.

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From the television screen to the workshop to the streets. The University of Northern Iowa's Physics of Mario Kart camp brought the classic video game, "Super Mario Kart," to life. Eight high school students spent a week constructing life-sized Mario karts and took them to the walkways on campus for some friendly racing.