Hunkered down into the body of a soap box derby car, 12-year-old Rosemore Middle School student Taylor Stace found it difficult to reach the pedals and levers required to drive the car.

"You're way down in the car and need to reach down to steer, but it's fun to do," said Stace, a sixth-grader and one of eight Rosemore students who were joined by 17 students from Whitehall-Yearling High School and spent five days last week at Priority Designs, 100 S. Hamilton Road, in Whitehall.

The students worked 4-6 p.m. March 18-22 to build four soap box derby cars that will compete May 11 in a race at Big Run Park, 4201 Clime Road in Columbus.

Stace could be behind the wheel of one of the cars.

The cars also are expected to compete May 16 and 18 at the Akron Gravity Racing Challenge, or GRC Challenge, an event where students from throughout Ohio apply science, technology, engineering and math or STEM concepts, to soap box derby races.

The annual event is sponsored by the College of Engineering at the University of Akron. Whitehall students were able to build the cars through the effort of Restore Whitehall, Priority Designs and others, said Keith McCray, a program specialist for Restore Whitehall.

The soap box derby program is one of several by Restore Whitehall, whose primary mission is to help at-risk families achieve self-sufficiency by equipping them with practical and tactical resources, said Tom Edwards, program director of Restore Whitehall.

In this instance, exposing students to STEM-based learning and how it can be applied in a tangible way is a step toward encouraging students for future careers in STEM-based fields, McCray said.

McCray reached out to Priority Designs to assist students in building the cars.

Priority Designs purchased one car, Rosemore Middle School purchased two and Whitehall-Yearling High School and Beany's Auto Service Center in Reynoldsburg purchased the other, said McCray, who added that each car cost $813.45.

Employees of Priority Designs, a product-development firm with researchers, designers, engineers and prototype-creators, assisted students with building and testing the cars, said Paul Kolada, president and co-founder of Priority Designs.

"This was a project that drew on all of those skills," said Kolada, adding that employees assisted students with not only engineering concepts but even the paint schemes.

Testing included placing the cars' wheels on a pair of treadmills to measure airflow and aerodynamics.

Stephaun Ellis, 16, is a junior at Whitehall-Yearling who plans to study architecture and engineering.

"We watched videos the first days and then we got to work building," said Ellis, who as part of a six-student team built the car's brake system. "There are a lot of metal rods and lines. It took some work to figure it out."

Kelly Houser, a science teacher at Rosemore Middle School, said the exercise provides not only STEM-based learning but also the opportunity to work in teams and practice following step-by-step directions.

Patrick Danko, a chemistry teacher at Whitehall-Yearling, said the greatest benefit of the car-building program is illustrating to students how STEM-concepts can be applied in real life.

"We have kids who want a STEM career but don't know what they want to do," Danko said.

"This is an avenue for them to figure that out."