Chuck and Marsha West are always looking for educational opportunities for their children. Their teenage daughter wants to be a race-car driver, Chuck West says, raising a pair of air quotes. "That's this week. Last week she wanted to be a diva."
Their 11-year-old son says he wants to be a "pilot-slash-doctor-slash-game creator." West introduces him as "Little Einstein": "He's very interested in science."
What brought the Wests and several other families to LeMay — America's Car Museum in Tacoma on a Saturday morning in October was the opportunity to build a solar-powered toy car. It was a basic model, but packed with the power of wonderment at creating something that "drives."
If you go
The Family Workshop at LeMay — America's Car Museum, geared for families with children ages 5-12, is held from 11 a.m. to noon on the fourth Saturday of each month. Admission for members is $5 per project kit; for nonmembers, it's $8 per project kit plus museum admission. Register at lemaymuseum.org, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 253-683-3964; registration is available at the door if space allows.
Dec. 28, Pinewood Derby Challenge
Jan. 25, Sail Car
Feb. 22, Mouse Trap Car
March 22, Balloon Racer
The monthly Family Workshop, which offers a different theme every month, is the first of several interactive programs and exhibits the museum has developed for its new Family Zone. The hands-on activity space celebrated its grand opening this month.
Debbie Kray, LeMay's education manager overseeing the workshops, says that by combining science, innovation and culture, the museum hopes to inspire a new generation of car enthusiasts.
Exhibit A of this new generation could be the Underwood kids — ages 9, 7 and 5. "Our kids don't know much about cars," says their father, Zach. "But we're always looking for fun things to do."
The Puyallup family, including mother Mary, who home-schools her children, spent about 40 minutes assembling palm-size wood-block cars from a kit containing about a dozen parts, including a tiny solar panel. The do-it-yourself project came with a one-page instruction sheet. Then it was time to test drive the cars under a bright lamp.
When the cars proved fast and true — converting the light into electricity and motoring across a smooth tabletop — Grant, Leah and Sarah lit up and cheered.
Underwood, an IT manager, says he's hopeful that solar-powered cars will be more than just toys in the near future. "Seems like we're right there on the edge with solar technology — if we can only manufacture them in more efficient ways," he says.
The museum displays two solar-powered cars, both experimental vehicles: the Viking, a race car built in 1990 by Western Washington University, and a three-wheeled, 400-pound Momentum Solar Car, made by students at the University of Michigan in 2005.
Being surrounded by innovative and classic cars fills Kray with a sense of appreciation. "It's a gift for our community to have this world-class museum here," she says. "This is a big part of our culture."
And it's a cultural gift that bridges generations. At a workshop table, Kaden Christenson, 7, worked beside his father and two grandfathers.
"We're the proud grandpas," says Ron Christenson, pointing to Kaden. "This is bonding time with the grandchild. My boy [Ryan, Kaden's father] was an Eagle Scout, and we went through all this stuff with the pinewood derby cars. I guess this is the next phase."