Solar Car Project Shines Light on Camp for High-Schoolers
Team Works With UT Dallas Engineering Students to Produce an Operable Vehicle
Jul. 16, 2012
High school students from across North Texas worked with UT Dallas students to build a solar-powered car during a four-week summer camp on campus.
A team of 20 high-school students representing almost as many North Texas schools built a solar-powered car in just four weeks during the first Solar Car Camp held at The University of Texas at Dallas.
UT Dallas students in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science provided guidance to the high schoolers, but the teens were responsible for actually getting the job done.
The goal is for the car to go through a comprehensive judging process called “scrutineering” at the 2012 Solar Car Challenge at the Texas Motor Speedway. Judging is slated for July 17.
High school students, including Austin Gwartney (right), worked with UT Dallas students on the mechanical and electrical systems on the solar-powered car.
Although they will get feedback from the judges, the campers and their car will not compete against the other high-school teams officially entered in the challenge. Those teams had nearly a year to complete their cars.
The first critical test of the vehicle came Thursday, when the team set out to demonstrate that the car could run using solar power for several hours. Team members traveled with the vehicle approximately 100 miles from Seagoville to Bullard High School in Bullard, Texas, with the car running on its own power for several miles.
“As is always the case in complex engineering projects, the car did not work perfectly,” said Dr. Ken Berry, assistant director of the Science and Engineering Education Center (SEEC) at UT Dallas and the camp director. “We were very impressed that it averaged 25 miles per hour, and had a top speed of 35 miles per hour.”
Bullard High School science teacher Stacy Gwartney, who was observing the camp and had two students participating, said her high school is planning to field a team in next year’s national challenge.
UT Dallas engineering students conceived of the solar car project as part of a senior design course. During the summer Solar Car Camp, the University students became project managers, overseeing the campers’ work and providing technical assistance.”
Matthew Westbrook, a UT Dallas mechanical engineering student and intern with SEEC, demonstrated proper solar car driving techniques.
The camp gave UT Dallas electrical engineering student Seon Jae Kim his first experience in a project-management role. He provided information about electrical and computer systems and advised students how to work with the solar panels.
“I was nervous at first, but now I feel really comfortable with the group, and I love it,” Kim said. “Solar panel technology is related to my research area – nanotechnology – so I was excited about working on this project.”
Mechanical engineering student Matthew Westbrook is an intern with SEEC, and has previously designed projects for young children to help them understand specific concepts. “This is a bit more intensive, and they did a very good job,” said Westbrook, who helped ensure the solar-car campers worked safely.
After the camp, the vehicle will remain at UT Dallas, where University students will continue to work on it for possible entry in future solar car events.
Sam Tunnell, a camp participant who will be a sophomore at Denton High School in the fall, said the most challenging part of the project was effective communication among team members.
“We had to learn all the tricks of the trade and about the tools we were using, like how to weld, how to solder and how to use different kinds of drills,” said Tunnell, who has aspirations of becoming an aerospace engineer.
Dr. Ken Berry (center), who directed the Solar Car Camp, was aided by UT Dallas engineering students (from left) David Cobb, Zewdu Derso, Matthew Westbrook, Seon Jae Kim and Nikkan Yadegary.
“But it was really hard communicating information to each other. We were all getting very frustrated, but we learned to deal with it.”
Berry said so-called 21st-century workforce skills are often the most difficult for students to grasp.
“As a teacher, I have learned that teamwork, communication and project planning are among the hardest things for students to understand,” said Berry, who had never built a solar car before this summer’s camp. “Project planning is really critical and incredibly difficult, to be able to figure out what’s going to happen next and have everything prepared in the correct order. Our UT Dallas students also are learning this lesson.”
At the heart of the solar-powered car is a go-cart chassis, which the students modified and outfitted with four solar panels provided by Texas-based 1SolTech.
Gwartney said she is excited about the learning opportunities a solar car project will offer her students.
“I was amazed to see how Dr. Berry incorporated chemistry, physics and engineering,” said Gwartney, a 22-year teaching veteran whose students have competed successfully in robotics competitions, including at the 2012 FIRST Championship. “For my senior students it will really bring home all the sciences we cover, plus they’ll learn about alternative energy sources. As an overall project, it’s the way to go.”
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