Intro to Engineering Design: Spotlight

Soldering; forces; efficiency; drag; friction; aerodynamics; circuitry: these are just several concepts that a student will master during their time in Introduction to Engineering Design. Throughout the year, the class prepares to compete in the Solar Car Challenge at the Texas Motor Speedway. This annual, project-based STEM Initiative takes place in July over 4-5 days, and high schoolers from nearly 200 schools learn to plan, design, engineer, build, and race roadworthy solar cars.

“The first thing we’re going to do is build a frame of the car, but before that, students need to learn how to cut and weld and fabricate,” said teacher Ronnie Pittman.

To learn about the engineering design process, fabrication, and creating for an audience, students built carts for teachers to push from building to building. They interviewed teachers about what they would like to see in a cart, and then modeled it using foam core board. They built scale models and brought them to teachers for feedback before beginning fabrication. After developing their skills, they were ready to build the frame of the solar car.

However, as time goes on, the class becomes responsible for more than the frame. There’s a wide variety of components that go into constructing the perfect solar car: students wire together solar cells, build the brain, and design a controller. They explore battery components such as weight, performance, and cost, and research types of suspensions, tires, and brakes. Their goal is to make their car energy efficient.

“[Students] have to figure out, how fast can you go? If you go too fast you drain your batteries, but if you go too slow, it isn’t efficient; you’re trying to find that place where you use the least amount of energy and the motor is most efficient,” said Pittman. “You’re allowed to bring your car fully charged [to the Solar Car Challenge], and then after day one, there’s no more charging — your only power is solar.”

The competition begins with scrutineering. At this time, judges analyze the cars to ensure they meet all technical requirements and safety regulations, and students give an oral presentation, where they share a digital scrapbook documenting the entire construction process. After scrutineering, the race begins: and students drive roughly 500 miles on nothing but sun.

By learning these skills, students are equipped with tools to be successful not only in a future career but throughout their lives.

“[This project] gives them real-world experience and makes learning realistic and relevant. They’re learning practical skills; they’re creating something; they’re physically engaged. I can’t keep them out of the class, you would be amazed at how much they love welding! I literally have students in there all the time,” said Pittman. “It’s a fun, real-life class. It’s fun while learning, which to me, is the way that learning should be.”

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