Some summertime solar fun

The Stark Enterprises solar car. Photo by Jen Love.
The Stark Enterprises solar car. Photo by Jen Love.

The Stark Enterprises solar car. Photo by Jen Love.

“The problem is that islanders on the Solomon Islands in remote villages walk two to three hours to collect kerosene for their lamps and cooking stoves, time they could be using to grow crops or do other productive work.”

Those are the words written at the top of a handout given to all freshman engineering students that take Engineering Design during the “summester.” At the end of their course, they’re asked to bring together everything they’ve learned — engineering design process, solar photovoltaics, manufacturing and assembly, materials, 3D printing, AutoCAD and Solidworks to name a few — to engineer a solar powered model car that can transport a cup of water across a thirty foot track. The project is supposed to be a “prototype analogy” of an actual design that Solomon Islanders could use to transport kerosene from a town to their remote village.

And of course, since nothing is as motivational as a little healthy competition, the students race their cars against one another.

The students can spend no more than $20 on their cars and they have to follow a series of design specifications. For one, the solar panel, which is provided, has to be removable and adjustable, so it can be directed toward the sun wherever it happens to be on race day. There is no battery pack or other energy storage device, so what the solar panel sees is what the solar panel gets: At the beginning of the race the panel is covered with an opaque sheet and then when the whistle blows it begins collecting energy from the sun to immediately power the motor.

“Being able to take our ideas and designs from paper and make them into something that really worked was extremely cool,” one student reflected.

“There’s no better way to learn about the engineering design process than getting hands-on experience,” said another.

The cars are on display in the Snell Engineering building in the Student Services Office if you want to go take a look. Here’s a video of the high action event to whet your palate: