Building Electric Cars Enhances STEM Learning

Brownsville (Texas) Independent School District’s top three Middle School Division cars that competed in the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) HESTEC (Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology Week) GreenPowerUSA South Texas Electric Car Competition included the second-place winning car from Garcia Middle School (center car). PHOTO COURTESY OF UTRGV—DAVID PIKE

Students around the country are learning science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by designing, building, and racing electric cars. Mario Molina, eighth-grade science teacher at Dr. Juliet V. Garcia Middle School in Brownsville, Texas, co-coached (with a seventh-grade math teacher) a team of 3 seventh graders and 10 eighth graders who built a single-seat electric-powered racecar and competed in the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley HESTEC (Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology Week) GreenPowerUSA South Texas Electric Car Competition, held at the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport on April 6–7 (see www.greenpowerusa.net). They competed to see which car could drive the farthest in 90 minutes with one set of batteries. “It was a good opportunity for students to look at a vehicle and see the components from start to end, and work on a project in a group setting,” Molina contends.

Brownsville Independent School District paid for 10 car kits from GreenpowerUSA for its 10 middle schools. The kits cost about $5,000 each and consisted of “a body, a motor, and batteries,” says Molina. “The students had to design the outside body panels, choose their own design and colors… The skeleton of the car had two pieces and had to be put together with the motor and wiring,” he explains. The kits arrived in February 2018, giving the students two months to build them before the race.

As they built the car’s interior, Molina says students learned about engineering and electrical work, as well as using hand tools and safety equipment, reading a blueprint, and “problem solving—why is the car making this noise?” Students designed the car’s exterior “on their own as homework, and they brought their ideas to school. There was a lot of homework with this project,” he reports.

Though the district funded the car kits, tools, and teacher training ($6,500 per school), the students had to find additional donors. Garcia’s teachers donated three sets of driving suits and gloves for the drivers, and a local business donated a sheet of corrugated plastic for the car’s body, says Molina. The students collected $800 in donations.

Molina’s team placed second in the race’s Middle School Division. It also had High School and College divisions, and “it was very impressive when the students got to see the high school and college students’ cars and what advanced things they did with their cars,” which further inspired them, Molina observes.

Though Jack Rosenthal’s high school students at Lennox Mathematics, Science, and Technology Academy (LMSTA) in Inglewood, California, weren’t able to build a working car, they learned a lot by trying. Rosenthal— who was an EnCorps STEM Teacher Fellow (https://encorps.org) at LMSTA and is now an engineering instructor at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, California—and science teacher Jose Rivas spent a year building a safe electric car with LMSTA students for the 2015 Shell Eco-Marathon, held in Detroit, Michigan.

“I had [four high school] students working on the battery system and control portions of the car [for] a college competition. [LMSTA] was invited to participate because they had built an electric boat and received praise for it,” Rosenthal relates. Though the competition allowed students to build various types of cars, Rosenthal says his students chose to build an electric car “due to the growth of electric cars. They’re in vogue, and a hot topic because the autonomous car industry is shifting to less air polluting/safer cars.”

Building a safe electric car from scratch as specified in the contest rules proved challenging and costly. “The financial issues and [limited] availability of advanced technologies such as battery safety equipment/systems to meet competition rules cost us the trip to Detroit,” Rosenthal explains.

“The purpose of the competition was to get students to brainstorm, research, and build an electric car from specifications only and make it work safely,” he maintains. His students benefitted from their effort because “they understood what it takes to build a safe battery and associated control system and to work with other teams doing different parts of the car…They got an understanding of how many people are needed to build an electric car and the many steps [involved].”

Starting Small

Because of the time and money needed to build a life-size electric car, some teachers opt to build small electric cars instead. “Our seventh-grade science teachers collaborate with our Tech Lab teacher on a recycled car project. Kids design and build their car with plastic bottles, bottle caps, 9-volt batteries, small motors with propellers, and anything they can think of to attach a battery to the car and motor,” says Eric Diefenderfer, seventh-grade science teacher at Boardman Glenwood Junior High School in Boardman, Ohio.

“Students learn about lab safety and proper use of tools and power equipment (glue gun, utility knives, drills, drill press, awl),” Diefenderfer reports. “This student-led lab allows them to problem-solve as they work through the scientific methods/inquiry skills while making connections to the engineering design process,” he observes. “[T]his was a great way to introduce STEM and 21st-century learning concepts while still connecting to science standards. Some people think STEM is a separate subject, but this project shows how it is integrated.”

“I run an after-school competition called Junior Solar Sprint (learn more at https://goo.gl/zwzunn) in which students build an electric car out of any material that has to carry an empty soda can…The cars run on a solar panel if it is sunny; if not, a battery pack,” says Gavin Kearns, grades 7–8 science teacher at Paul Elementary School in Wakefield, New Hampshire. He gives students the motors and solar panels, but students are free to choose the rest of the materials for their cars, which allows them to be creative, he contends.

One challenge students face is “with an electric car, they really have to pay attention to the weight and structure of the car. It needs to perform a lot of functions, but can’t be over-built,” Kearns points out. “It needs to be very precise in how gears mesh; the axles have to be perfectly parallel so that the gears mesh [properly].”

At the competition, students can win awards for innovation and style, craftsmanship, technical merit of the solar panel and powertrain, and technical merit for weight, traction, drag, and guidance. “Some cars might have an interesting design, but might not win the race. They’ll get an award for their design,” reports Kearns.

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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