On the sunny side

Engineering students race solar-powered toy cars

May 11, 2008|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,Special to The Sun

What do you get when you give some engineering students small solar panels and little electric motors, and you tell them to make something that goes fast?

You get a "solar car challenge," with diverse teams of bright young men and women racing their sun-powered, shoebox-sized vehicles around the promenade outside a classroom building at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold.

Engineering can be fun, says Chris Kilian, chairman of the school's Engineering Department.

To prove his point, students in the college's Engineering Transfer program, a course for students who plan to complete the two-year course and pursue a degree at a four-year school, recently completed a one-semester class, Introduction to Engineering Design, by competing in a "solar car challenge" for bragging rights among their fellow aspiring engineers.

Kilian calls the biennial solar-car project the engineering design program's capstone.

Students are divided into three- to four-member teams, with enough female students in the Thursday class to have at least one woman per team. Each team gets a solar panel about 6-by-12 inches in size and a small electric motor. From there, the teams must rely on their understanding of engineering principles and their creativity to design a shoe-box-sized car that will beat the competition.

Winning time is calculated by averaging the times in three runs along a 30-foot course on the promenade outside the Center for Applied Learning and Technology building, where the engineering class meets. The cars need sunshine to go, so races get postponed on cloudy, overcast days. Night-class students must schedule their races for Saturdays, explained Elizabeth Wyler, a professor of engineering at the community college.

The winning time this year was 4:05 seconds, achieved by the "Frankin-foam" car.

A member of the winning team, Bob White, 32, a Navy veteran who was a Cryptologic Maintenance Technician 1st Class, said building the solar car "was a great tool to lead us to our own discovery." He added that the team-building it taught was a "great intro into the world of engineering."

The team of Josh Thompson, 17, Jason Holsey, 20, and Julie Squire, 13, called themselves The Little Tin Can That Could, for the Arizona Tea can they chose for their second chassis after their first model proved too heavy.

Team Ramrod -- Eduardo Flores and Abraham Hunter, both 20, and Keanne Boyette, 24, an Air Force veteran -- spent as much time as they could after hours in the engineering lab until the janitor kicked them out. Like the Little Can team, the Ramrods had to go to a second model after they abandoned their "Wow factor" first car, which turned out to be too complex to work.

Each car is required to safely hold Solar Car Guy, a foot-tall movable model used in art classes.

On Thursday, after all the heats were finished, the teams huddled around computer monitors in a laboratory in the new technology building to put finishing touches on the final reports for their solar-car efforts.

With a mix of backgrounds -- at least two military veterans, and some married students -- the students ranged from a 13-year-old home schooler, whose 1,920 score on her SATs in 7th grade won her enrollment in the class, to a 30-something who commutes to AACC from his job in Virginia.

Before the presentations began, Wyler handed each student an evaluation sheet to anonymously critique the other team's reports.

Wyler posed a thorny question: "Do you think what you think is good is what I'm going to think is good?" She added, "Since this is anonymous, you can be honest." Each team will receive a summarized list of comments from the instructor.

In addition to Engineering Transfer, aspiring engineers may choose from two other AACC programs. Electronics Engineering Technology, or EET, is a two-year college program for electronic technicians, Kilian said. This course requires no designing and is more practical and hands-on, he said.

Another AACC engineering program is Computer Aided Drafting, or CAD. Students in this two-year course of study learn to make drawings of parts that go into machines, Kilian said. He explained that CAD graduates might be employed by large aerospace companies or small companies that build things such as boats, houses, sprinkler systems and electronic dog fences.

Abraham Hunter summed up how he feels this first design project will help him with future engineering problems: "These trials are only going to help us grow to be more careful in our final solutions."

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