With the last name, Roller, it is no surprise that Al and his family have made quite an impression on the Jamestown Area Soap Box Derby over the past three generations.
“My father competed in the soap box derby in Jamestown in 1953 and 1954. Back then, you had to build the whole car. They didn’t come in kits like today’s cars,” Roller said.
In 1985, at the age of 9, Roller and his dad spent their weekends building the perfect car for him to make his racing debut.
For five years, Roller enjoyed racing and spending time with his father, although he never made it to the championships.
At least not as a racer.
“It took a couple of decades but my oldest son, Caleb, won the local (race) in his second year and we went to Akron (Ohio) for the worlds,” Roller said.
It was then, Roller caught the soap box derby fever and became part of a tightknit group of families and volunteers.
“Everything I, and (the other adults that have been involved with the derby) do is for the kids and their futures.”
For the past 25 years, Roller has coached his kids, his kids’ friends and others throughout the community interested in building and driving their own derby car, passing on many of the lessons he learned from his father.
“My father could fix anything,” Roller said. “He truly was the original STEM person. I learned most of what I know from him.”
Incorporating STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math, skills into derby racing has always been a no-brainer for Roller. Today, with the support of Dream It Do It of Western New York and The New York State Technology and Engineering Educators’ Association, students at Westfield, Dunkirk, Jamestown and Southwestern schools will have the opportunity to learn first-hand how STEM can be applied to derby racing, and beyond.
“Working with industry volunteers will provide students real-life examples between building the cars and work environments the manufacturing industry has to offer,” Jehuu Caulcrick, DIDI WNY coordinator, said.
According to Caulcrick, not only will students use the cars they build to participate in the Jamestown Area Soap Box Derby in June, but they will also have the opportunity to compete in their own Gravity Racing Challenge STEM Team Competition between the schools.
As for Roller, he will be working directly with the schools as a supervisor, answering questions, pointing students in the right direction, and possibly even a few secrets of the trade.
“From working with the soap box derby all these years, I have learned how to stay focused, how to use my hands, physics and engineering,” he said. “This is the knowledge I want to pass on to other kids and this program is perfect to do that.”
In addition to engaging students with STEM related activities, both Caulcrick and Roller hope this encourages students to pursue STEM related careers.
“Our community is totally STEM driven, filled with blue collar people,” Roller said. “(Our community needs) machinists, quality control people, CNC operators, etc. Throughout my life, I have been that guy working in those fields. I don’t have a traditional college education; the experiences I’ve had are worth more than a piece of paper.”
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