Racing to the Future
JHS Students Build & Race Solar Cars
Writer / Tyrel Kessinger
It’s a well-established fact that learning doesn’t have to be boring, but the students and staff of Jeffersontown High School have grabbed the notion and ran with it. Last year, Ashley Drager, Academy Coach and former English teacher at JHS, along with the rest of the school’s staff, introduced the student body to the idea of building and racing solar cars. A road they’re now flying down.
“We wanted to have a school-wide project-based learning experience for our students,” Drager says. “We wanted it to be applicable to the real world. As most people know, alternative energy is our future, and that’s a hotbed topic and something that people are exploring. That’s where the solar car project started. We thought: what if our students built a solar car? From there we wanted all of the teachers and all of the classrooms to be involved, so we gave our teachers and students the challenge of developing a project based on alternative energy.”
Students were immediately attracted to the idea. It offered a chance to bring many different classes together, allowing them to work as a team, helping each other out with problems suited to their particular skills.
“Our welding, industrial maintenance, machine tool and CAD classes built three solar cars,” Drager says. “At one point we had a part, a gear that couldn’t be purchased. So our welding teacher went to our machine shop teacher and said, ‘I have this gear that I need,’ and the machine shop students drew out the gear, created the blueprints and then created it in-house. They could just walk down the hallway and put it on the car. It was really awesome.”
While building solar cars and then actually racing them sounds like obvious fun, Drager says she sees the students taking much more from it than just that.
“My hope is the students can see that what they’re learning in their classroom is applicable to real-world problem,” Drager says. “In their math class, looking at what it takes to convert from gas to solar, what are the angles needed to make the car run faster? Just making sure what we’re teaching in our classrooms is able to be seen in the real world. I think that’s the main goal, that students see what they are learning is important and how it applies to the real world.”
Indeed, the students are given heavy leeway within the boundaries of the project. They’re responsible for designing, making decisions, implementing them and actually building the cars, all on a deadline and with a limited budget. Building solar cares is pretty expensive, Drager says. Essentially, Drager goes on to say, the process is designed to mimic many jobs the students will one day pursue.
“What we do for the most part is we take a gas-powered go-kart and then we convert it from there,” Drager says. “The students do all the conversion. And then depending on the teacher and where they are in their program, they’re able to troubleshoot some things and make changes as needed. Our teams even worked with the UK solar car team to help develop their designs.”
For Drager, this approach to a more active style teaching method seems more than overt.
“This type of project-based learning is fun and students enjoy doing it,” she says. “That’s what really bridges the gap between the world and the classroom. Students can see that they have some skin in the game, that what they’re learning here does have a purpose.”
Emmanual Sowders, a JHS student and participant in the project, works with the electronic components of his team’s car.
“My responsibility is to make sure we get the right amount of current flow and power to the batteries from the solar panels. But, most importantly I make sure every connection is connected right.” Sowders says. He “likes the team aspect” of the project and working with the math-heavy concepts needed to convert gas engines to solar ones. Sowders helps build the electronic components of his team’s car as well. But Sowders isn’t done there.
“I also helped design and build the brackets and layout for each component,” he says.
And the student interest in Drager’s Academy-backed project is growing.
“I think this last year when I saw how many students were involved and saw how excited they were about what they had created and worked on in their classes, that there’s a sense of community it gives the students, is probably one of the most gratifying things that I’ve seen at J-Town,” she says. “There are so many students interested in this and to see them so interested in it, it’s really inspiring.”
Drager informs me that they initially started with three cars, seek to add another this year and are looking for a fifth by 2019. She’s also looking for competition, hoping that other schools in Jefferson County will step up and take part in the near future.
The race, held this year on April 12th (with an April 13th rain check), is a school-wide event, a day for the students building the cars to demonstrate the success of their work.
“We race the cars around the track, and the student body goes out to the football stadium and they get to watch it all happen,” Drager says. “We do relay races and drag races. Some of our teachers get in and race. It’s just a really fun day.”
On the day of the event, the Ford Motor Company also hosts a vintage car show so the students can physically see the evolution of automobile design over the decades. Drager says the kids love it, adding that many students have never even seen a vintage car in person before.
While direct participation in the event does lean in favor of students taking classes that lend themselves to the particular endeavors of constructing a solar-powered car, Drager says any and all students can be active participants in the event in some form or another.
“Obviously the machine shop type classes are more involved with the actual car building, but this year the marketing teacher wants to help with the branding for the event,” she says. “Our art teacher wants to help design the logo for the event. So those students have a hand in it too, just in a different kind of way. There’s a lot of possibilities really.”