Education

High School Carmakers Build Electric ‘Green’ Machines

By Rhea R. Borja — May 07, 2003 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

At first glance, the car didn’t look like much.

Painted a dull blue with orange stripes, the low two-seat convertible sat in West Philadelphia High School’s garage, its plywood instrument panel with hand- drawn signals catching the glare of an overhead light.

Technology Page

Then on a recent sunny April afternoon, several students in protective goggles turned on high-powered electric sanders and descended on the car’s fiberglass shell. The tools’ deafening buzz and specks of bluish-white paint dust filled the air as they stripped away the paint. After a few days and a lot of elbow grease, the car sported a gleaming silver coat.

But it wasn’t the car’s looks that made carmakers and regional energy officials sit up and take notice —it’s what lay under the hood.

The “Soljourner II,” originally a 1995 Jeep Wrangler, had been stripped down and rebuilt as a clean, environmentally friendly machine. Instead of a full-size, gas-guzzling engine, the car was powered by a generator using a tiny, 20-horsepower diesel engine, a 36- horsepower electric motor, and a 408-volt battery pack.

This hybrid biodiesel-electric vehicle was built by the small group of enthusiastic students and their teachers at this city high school better known for its tough, urban environment than for its academic success.

“This is a really good learning experience,” said Simon Hauger, the electric-car team’s lead teacher, who also teaches math and science in the 1,600-student school’s automotive academy. “This is a hands-on education project so kids can apply what they’re learning in science, math, physics, [and] environmental and automotive [science].”

The ‘Green Machine’ Race

West Philadelphia High School’s electric car team is part of a nationwide trend in which high school students are building and racing electric cars—an experience that educators say reinforces what the students learn in math and science classes.

Competitions for such school-built vehicles abound across the country, and include the Corvallis, Ore.-based Electrathon America, the Kansas ElectroRally, and the Hawaiian Electric Co.'s Electrathon Marathon.

The team at West Philadelphia High, composed of African-American boys from the city’s urban southwest, has earned a reputation as a top competitor. The team cleaned up at the 2002 Tour de Sol, a “green machine” road rally from Baltimore to New York City in May of last year. The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, a regional group based in Greenfield, Mass., that promotes renewable-energy technologies, organized the event.

The West Philadelphia team competed against more than two dozen high schools and universities nationwide—as well as teams created by carmakers such as Toyota and DaimlerChrysler—for awards recognizing the most environmentally friendly, reliable, and efficient vehicles.

All of the cars drastically reduced gasoline consumption or used electricity, biodiesel, solar power, or hydrogen, which emit low greenhouse-gas emissions, a main cause of air pollution and the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer.

West Philadelphia’s contingent won seven awards for the two electric and hybrid cars the team entered, including first place in the prototype (one-of-a-kind) electric-vehicle category, second place in the prototype hybrid category, and awards for “greenest” and “most efficient” light-duty vehicles.

The awards highlight the innovation and smarts of not just the West Philadelphia students, but of all the students who entered the race, said Nancy Hazard, the director of the Tour de Sol.

Now in its 15th year, the race had no commercial competitors until five years ago, after carmakers were impressed with the students’ electric cars and saw the vehicles’ real-world potential.

“Schools and universities played a real leadership role in bringing electric cars to the marketplace,” Ms. Hazard said. “They’ve demonstrated they can work to the general public.”

For instance, she cited commercially available hybrid gasoline-electric cars such as the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius.

‘Eager to Learn’

The Tour de Sol cars are judged not just on speed, but—more importantly—fuel efficiency, greenhouse-gas emissions, reliability, handling ability, and driving range. The vehicles must navigate a slalom course, an autocross course with hairpin turns, as well as undergo other intensive technical-performance tests.

Last year, for instance, the Soljourner II had a top speed of 80 miles per hour and a driving range of 250 miles. This year, the West Philadelphia High team hopes to approach a driving range of 300 miles, again, using biodiesel, a renewable liquid fuel made from vegetable oils.

“It smells like McDonald’s french fries,” said Paul Silberschatz, a junior mechanical-engineering student at the private University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He’s one of several college students mentoring the high schoolers.

The high school’s hybrid car also performed well on the greenhouse-gas test, emitting about 23 pounds of carbon dioxide every 100 miles, Ms. Hazard said. In comparison, a typical gas-fueled sedan getting 27 miles per gallon emits 86 pounds of carbon dioxide every 100 miles. A gas- fueled sport utility vehicle getting 13 mpg emits 172 gallons of carbon dioxide at the same distance.

Last week, the West Philadelphia students were adding the final touches to their hybrid car for this year’s Tour de Sol, which runs May 10-14 from New Jersey to Washington. They’re going to enter a new, improved version of Soljourner II.

They’re replacing the car’s Plexiglas windshield with shatterproof glass, building a new nose section and roof, optimizing the car’s electronic system, and lightening the weight of the battery pack to make the car more aerodynamic.

Mr. Silberschatz emphasized the high level of learning this after-school program entails. “This is a college-level program, of very high caliber,” he said. “The students here are dedicated and eager to learn.”

Eleventh grader David Pope said he joined the team to learn something new. “I wasn’t being challenged much in school,” he said, “and this gave me a chance to get challenged.”

Senior Calvin Adams said working on the team gave him direction in school. He plans to become an automotive technician after a stint in the Marine Corps.

‘Real-World Applications’

The electric-car programs, students and teachers say, are as beneficial to a college-bound engineering student as they are to a teenager who plans to become a car mechanic right out of high school.

Amber Cross, a senior at the 450-student Cato-Meridian High School in Cato, N.Y., will drive her team’s three-wheeled, solar-powered “Sunpacer” car in the Tour de Sol.

Ms. Cross plans to study chemical engineering this fall at Clarkson University. The university, in Potsdam, N.Y., has a nationally renowned engineering program.

“This has helped me in physics, basic mechanics,” Ms. Cross said. “There’s a lot of real-world applications with this car. It’s taught me a lot about alternative energy sources that we’d talked about in chemistry.”

This year’s car-team members aren’t the only students who have seen the crossover in learning, said Mr. Hauger, the lead teacher for the West Philadelphia High team. Over the past five years, some of his students have gone on to Temple University, Drexel University, and Pennsylvania State University, among other institutions. One even received a five-year engineering scholarship to Drexel, Mr. Hauger added.

Several have become automotive technicians after graduating from programs developed by the carmakers Volvo and BMW. And that career route has its benefits.

“A few of the kids,” the teacher said over the ear-splitting sounds caused by the students sanding the car, “make more money straight out of school than I do.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Building Teacher Capacity for Social-Emotional Learning
Set goals that support adult well-being and social-emotional learning: register today!


Content provided by Panorama
Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Tiny Wrists in Cuffs: How Police Use Force Against Children
An investigation finds children as young as 6 and a disproportionate amount of Black children have been handled forcibly by police officers.
15 min read
Jhaimarion, 10, reacts as he listens to his mother, Krystal Archie talking with an Associated Press reporter in Chicago on Sept. 23, 2021. Archie’s three children were present when police, on two occasions, just 11 weeks apart, kicked open her front door and tore through their home searching for drug suspects. She’d never heard of the people they were hunting. Her oldest child, Savannah was 14 at the time; her youngest, Jhaimarion, was seven. They were ordered to get down on the floor.
Jhaimarion, 10, reacts as he listens to his mother, Krystal Archie talking with an Associated Press reporter in Chicago on Sept. 23, 2021. Archie’s three children were present when police, on two occasions, just 11 weeks apart, kicked open her front door and tore through their home searching for drug suspects. She’d never heard of the people they were hunting. Her oldest child, Savannah was 14 at the time; her youngest, Jhaimarion, was seven. They were ordered to get down on the floor.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
Education Gunman in 2018 Parkland School Massacre Pleads Guilty
A jury will decide whether Nikolas Cruz will be executed for one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings.
3 min read
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP
Education Briefly Stated: October 20, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Gunman in Parkland School Massacre to Plead Guilty
The gunman who killed 14 students and three staff members at a Florida high school will plead guilty to their murders, his attorneys said.
4 min read
Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz is sworn in before pleading guilty, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on all four criminal counts stemming from his attack on a Broward County jail guard in November 2018, Cruz's lawyers said Friday that he plans to plead guilty to the 2018 massacre at a Parkland high school.
Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz is sworn in before pleading guilty, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on all four criminal counts stemming from his attack on a Broward County jail guard in November 2018, Cruz's lawyers said Friday that he plans to plead guilty to the 2018 massacre at a Parkland high school.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP