High-schoolers mesh in technology class

Engineering: In an electric-car project, teams of Howard teens get the chance to learn by doing. And doing it over.

November 13, 1999|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The class of energy, power and transportation students started in January with high expectations. By the end of the year, all 28 would secure internships in engineering, build a car that runs solely on electric power and work together as teams and, ultimately, friends.

But questions persisted as the Long Reach and River Hill high school students gathered the first few days in the garage-like classroom in the county's Applications and Research Lab in Ellicott City.

Would they get along with each other? Would they be able to handle this class, their other classes -- and an engineering internship? And how were they to build an automobile starting with one piece of graph paper and a pencil?

That's the way the college-level class is designed, said John Ensor, who, with Dale Clemons, teaches the course. Uncertainty at the beginning makes success at the end sweeter.

"The challenge and the excitement when you start off is to not have a clue," Ensor said.

A semester and a half later, the engineering students not only have a clue, they have two battery-driven "Electrathon" cars to show for their effort.

"When we first drove, the first day we got the cars to work," said Sae Kim, 17, a senior at Long Reach, "we pressed the accelerator and everyone just cheered!"

Howard County schools introduced the technology magnet program in 1996, with more than 600 students divided between Long Reach and River Hill high schools. The former School of Technology underwent a $2.8 million renovation and became the Applications and Research Lab.

Administrators revamped the county's vocational education program, replacing traditional areas of study such as woodworking with more up-to-date titles and curricula. Auto mechanics became energy, power and transportation, and students in the class are expected to learn not just about cars but also about engineering.

Students who choose to be a part of the technology magnet program as freshmen spend two years in their home schools, complete a course in the lab in practical applications as juniors, and complete their senior year working in outside internships for class credit.

Some of the internships lead to job offers, Ensor said. Most students go on to college.

The students will leave the class this January more prepared for the working world, Ensor said.

Working as a team

"The team building that goes on in this class is tremendous," Ensor said. "When it's all said and done, they really lose sight of what high school they're from, what color their skin is and whether they're male or female. They're all in this together."

Hard work doesn't begin to describe building a battery-operated car. The process is rigorous.

Each year, the class divides into two groups, four teams per group: frame team, shell team, drive team, control team.

There are eight weeks of reading, Internet searching, drawing, creating scale models, testing, retesting and starting over. Then 10 weeks of constructing the vehicles: Styrofoam and plaster molds, painting, running computer programs, reading, welding, wiring, testing and retesting. And if the car doesn't run correctly -- start over .

Each team is responsible for meeting tight deadlines. One slow team could hold up the process.

"We definitely had a few arguments," said David Sikorski, 17, a senior at River Hill. "A few times, it got pretty close to ugly."

The work is laborious and time-consuming, and most successful electric car designers are college engineering graduates, Ensor said.

But these are high school students, complete with prom dates, after-school clubs -- and hormones.

"At the beginning of the semester, no one listened to my ideas," said Raina Pannee, 17, a senior at Long Reach, and one of two girls in the class. "They were like, `Don't listen to her. She can't think as well as us.' But now they know I can come up with just as good ideas as anyone else. They listen to me now. When anyone has a problem now, it's like, `Ask Raina.' "

Pannee said the class has piqued her interest in automotive engineering, and she's considering pursuing the subject in college next fall.

Test drive

The students -- who started the class as juniors and will finish this January -- tested their cars in September at Sandy Point State Park near the Bay Bridge. Ensor said the two cars, one hot-rod red and the other sleek and silver, performed comparably with those built by college students at some of the best schools in the country.

In about an hour and a half, the cars travel 22 to 24 miles. Each can accelerate to about 30 mph.

Since the test at Sandy Point, the students have been fine-tuning their vehicles, trying to make them run faster, longer and more efficiently.

At a recent test on the parking lot of the Department of Education, next door to the lab, the 20 or so students who made it through the class demonstrated in about 30 minutes all they've learned about problem-solving, team-building and, literally, having a blast.

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