High School Students Explore Future of Electric Cars
By Kathryn Boughton
November 6, 2009
SALISBURY — In January 2007 13 percent of Americans said they had never heard of global warming, according to an ACNeilsen poll of 46 countries. That figure may or may not have changed, but those Americans who had heard of global warming by 2009 are now choosing not to believe in it. A Pew Research report released last week said that 57 percent of Americans think there is solid evidence the world is getting warmer-but that figure is down 20 points from three years ago.
But the scientific evidence appears to be irrefutable, and today’s young people form the group most likely to be dramatically affected by the global crisis. They are, in many ways, the ones charged with cleaning up the mess and schools throughout the state are responding to the challenge of preparing the leaders of tomorrow by engaging them in projects that challenge them to think about global solutions creatively. Such a group met last Friday at Salisbury’s Lime Rock Park where the annual Electrathon Competition was held.
Student teams from across the state met to test electric cars they had crafted, seeing which team could drive the most laps in one hour on a closed loop track. The single-person, lightweight, aerodynamic vehicles are designed with three or four wheels and must meet specific design and safety rules established by Electrathon America, The cars are powered by standardized deep cycle lead acid battery packs not exceeding 64 pounds.
The team from Nathan Hale Ray High School in East Haddam took the overall win last week. Entered in the “Composite” category (fiberglass, wood or carbon-fiber monocoque chassis), the car completed 119 laps of Lime Rock’s 2/10-mile autocross test track in the allotted one hour, for a total of 23.8 miles.
Second overall and first in the “Classic” category (metal space-frame chassis) was the Lyme-Old Lyme High School vehicle, which completed 115 laps (23.0 miles). Tied for second place in the Classic division were Old Saybrook High School and the Somers High School, with 109 laps (21.8 miles) each. Finishing third was Farmington High School with 97 laps (19.4 miles). Nonnewaug High School of Woodbury was fifth in the composite division with 61 laps (12.2 laps).
The Connecticut Electrathon program was initiated by by Mike Grella, a retired Terryville vo-tech teacher who lives in Litchfield. Mr. Grella first saw the program in Maine a decade ago. That program was for adults and “they were doing things we could never build in a high school,” he related. Nevertheless, the teacher was intrigued and brought the concept home with him.
He approached Central Connecticut State University and it indicated its willingness to participate in the program by managing events. With that promise of support, he then e-mailed every high school in the state encouraging participation in an annual competition with two meets each year-one in the fall and one in the spring.
“This is a year-long program,” he said, adding that some schools treat it as an extra-curricular activity while in others it is part of the technical education offerings. Roy Slater, tech teacher at Somers High School said, for instance, that his school has participated since 2004 and builds its car as part of an advanced Research and Development Class for seniors. Although operated out of the technical education department, students for the R&D class are drawn from all parts of the school, based on their performance.
“It is a cross-section of the school population-those excelling in math, science and technology,” Mr. Slater said, adding that a combination of students from the academics honor program who have been exposed to pre-engineering classes and those with technical skills make the best combination. There are typically 14 students in the class and this is the first year when there has not been a female student working on the car.
“It’s a high-level class,” he said. “The students are recommended by their teachers and are challenged at the highest level.”
He said the class is school sanctioned but that the students must raise the money for the production of the car. “The school underwrites the program by providing space and me,” he said, but the young people must develop the skills needed to find corporate sponsors.
“I’ve been waiting for this group for four years,” he said, as he watched his team preparing the car for its Lime Rock run. “I have watched them since they were freshmen. This program brings all their skills together.”
Because this year’s class has raised $10,000 for the project, there is enough money to branch out into other areas, Mr. Slater said. In addition to the car, the young people are working on a solar-powered car and will try to build a hovercraft.
Such innovation is at the core of the Electrathon competition Mr. Grella said. “This is not a racing event,” he clarified. “The schools are racing against time, to see how many laps they can run in one hour.” He said the use of Lime Rock Park is particularly fortunate as it provides all the necessary ingredients-elevations and right and left turns such as would be encountered in on-street driving.
“The cars are 90 percent built by the students,” he reported. “Some schools will buy a kit that provides the body and frame, but then the kids have to come up with the ideas. They design the car on a computer and have to deal with such issues as aerodynamics and resistance of the wheels. They have to learn about composites.”
He said the cars take hundreds of hours for the students to complete and often require the young people to work during the evenings and on weekends. “When we were working on cars in Terryville, we were supposed to finish at 9 p.m., but they were always trying to finish something up and we never got out before 10,” Mr. Grella said with a smile. “I usually got home about quarter to 11. They couldn’t wait to work on them.”
Beyond the academics of designing an energy-efficient car, the students also learn “life lessons,” according to Mr. Grella. He recounts the story of the construction of Terryville’s first car, which was crafted by hand out of metal. When it came time to bend the metal, the students took the pieces to a local body shop where the owner volunteered his time and equipment to help the school. “It was a life lesson [about community service],” he said, “and the kids’ first question was, ‘What can we do for him?’ So they bought him a gift certificate to a restaurant.”
“[The students] form life-long relationships,” he added. “It gives them life values.” He said that students from a decade ago still seek him out to share what they have achieved in their professions. Mr. Slater noted that two of his former students were on the field Friday helping with the 2009 Electrathon competition. The program is steadily growing and more and more schools are joining. A number of schools were at Lime Rock Friday to observe the competition in anticipation of launching their own programs. “The spring competition is much bigger,” he said. He said he would like to see schools such as New Milford enter the competition in coming years.