Byron Nelson students get career head start with solar cars
For many adults, the extent of engineering learned in high school ended with basic electrical wiring. For a group of Byron Nelson High School students, it ends with making a solar-powered electric car.
Each summer following their school’s opening in 2009, Byron Nelson students have participated in the Solar Car Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway. The event challenges high school students to design, engineer and build solar cars to race against their peers. Students either race at Texas Motor Speedway or complete a cross-country course to a predetermined destination, depending on the race’s format for the year.
Students on Byron Nelson’s solar car team annually spend the entire school year and a large portion of summer making their vehicle for the race. During the 2016-17 school year, that meant designing the car in a software program around the time school started and beginning the building process late in the fall. The process often means working on weekends during the school year and spending long hours to finish the car over the summer.
Jeff Taylor, who serves as the faculty sponsor of the school’s solar car team, said the process of making the vehicle is worth it for the unique experience alone.
“It offers an alternative that most high schools aren’t able to provide,” he said. “There are about 25 or so high schools from across the country taking part in this event, and about 400 high schools are planning on taking part at the beginning of each year. Being one of the few to take part is an accomplishment itself. How many people can say they built a solar-powered vehicle in high school?”
On top of the engineering requirements, students also have to learn a variety of skills in other areas, Mr. Taylor added. They have to seek out community donations and sponsorships, as funding for each year’s car team costs roughly $20,000 to $30,000. Students have to gain marketing and personal skills to solicit donations and sponsorships in the community, and they have to be financial stewards of the team’s funds.
Byron Nelson has seen record-setting success in the Solar Car Challenge, winning its division each year from 2013 to 2016. The school’s 2017 vehicle fell just short of competing to defend its title, barely missing inspection.
Despite the setback, Mr. Taylor said the program still succeeded as an educational tool.
“The biggest amount of our time is spent building the car, and students involved in this team learn a lot about engineering,” he said. “They learn how to use tools and power equipment, but the biggest thing they learn is problem-solving skills. We’re taking parts from go-karts, golf carts, racing karts, mopeds – we take parts from almost anything to build a single solar-powered vehicle. Being able to take two parts that aren’t naturally supposed to go together and get them to work takes a lot of engineering.”
Senior team member Adelaide Villasana said the program has helped her think of how to tackle challenges she expects will have benefits for engineering projects in the future, as solar power becomes more prevalent.
“We can’t just take a motor from any vehicle and put it in, because we have to use solar energy to power it,” she explained. “I’d like to study engineering in college, so this has been an incredibly helpful experience. It’s a learning experience for sure, but it’s really fun at the same time.”
As part of a generation where technology advances create new job categories on a seemingly daily basis, students on Byron Nelson’s solar car team are aware of the advantages they’re gaining in a competitive job market.
According to statistics from the Solar Foundation, the amount of solar industry jobs has increased by 20 percent per year over the last four years. The foundation’s data indicates the amount of solar jobs has tripled since 2010, and one in every 50 new jobs added in the United States was created by the solar industry. Additionally, Texas ranked among the top five states for the most solar industry jobs in 2016.
Byron Nelson solar car team members cited the skills the program teaches them as important learning that could one day provide careers in a related industry. Multiple students said designing the car and working on tricky electrical engineering are examples of experiences no other program could give them.
For senior team member Nicholas Mounce, who is still deciding his collegiate and career goals, taking part in the solar car team served as a way to learn complex topics that could help in the future.
“A couple of my friends were on the team before and they recommended it, saying it could give you skills for a good profession,” he said. “It’s really enlightening, because coming in, you don’t know what to expect. Once you start getting into it, you learn it’s a lot of fun and you see how this could become a career. I’m still not quite sure what I want to do, but knowing all this – from the welding to the electrical part – is helpful.”
Joseph Archer, a junior team member, summed up his experience by stressing the benefits making a solar car can provide down the road, saying, “Solar power is a renewable energy source, and it’s something that’s only going to become more important in time. I’m very interested in engineering, and I knew I could learn a lot from this.”