Solar-powered remote control cars, hand-built and raced by high school teams.
Winner of the 2013 Excellence in Secondary Education Award
from the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education
How do we reach today's high-school kids with vital messages about energy efficiency and renewable energy? It's not going to be easy - they've got smartphones and girlfriends and video games and boyfriends and some of them even have real drivers' licenses already. Good luck. Frankly, we would need something ridiculous like a crazy-fast solar-powered radio-controlled car race. Which, thankfully, we now have.
We all love solar energy;
if only we all understood it.
The Solar Rollers program brings out the eco-techno-maker-learner kid in all of us - and especially so for high school students and teachers. These custom-built creations are based on parts from 1/10 scale radio-controlled cars but use hand-soldered solar arrays to generate power. The result is a flat, wide, mercilessly efficient craft that can keep going nonstop until the sun sets. Envision your oven door traveling faster than you can sprint - throughout an hourlong race.
While Solar Rollers are made of tangible hardware, what they represent is a valuable opportunity for deep, engaging hands-on learning in high schools. Teams are tackling a complete energy system, from harvesting sunlight to energy storage to efficient energy usage. Through the process of designing, building, testing, refining and eventually competing, students push themselves and their teammates to learn more about energy efficiency, photovoltaics (solar electricity), motors, batteries, material properties, gearing, friction and more. Students start off building a solar-powered RC car and wind up building their lifelong love of learning as part of a team.
Making a Solar Roller is a genuine challenge - and students love challenges.
Solar Rollers do not represent a technological leap in terms of advancing what top engineers already know about photovoltaic, electric car or radio control technology. However, for high school students they represent an obviously exciting opportunity for project-based STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Math) education. As a competition, teams are motivated from the start to brainstorm improvements to the mechanical and electrical efficiency of the car, while also maximizing the electricity generated when sunlight strikes the cartop solar array.
Accessible Solar Racing.
Currently, interested middle-school students (grades 6-8) compete in the nationwide, well established Junior Solar Sprint - essentially a solar drag race for small string-guided cars with preassembled solar panels and no electronics. This primes them for more involved solar competition in high school.
While good competitions do exist for high school teams to build manned solar cars and boats, participation is generally limited to highly committed schools close to race venues. For most middle school students in the US, the next available step in solar racing will not come until after high school.
The far more committing American Solar Challenge is a university-level competition complete with large teams of engineering students, budgets reaching into the millions and full-scale solar cars raced by drivers on the open road across entire continents.
The Solar Rollers race series intends to fill this high school gap with practical, achievable solar racing during the high school years. Budgets are big but not huge (up to $1000 in parts per car) and the car's systems are complex but not incomprehensible. Without carrying a driver, the cars can be much lighter; thus faster and more efficient than a larger manned vehicle.
Go for it.
While Solar Rollers uses guidelines similar to a competition originally run at French technical colleges, the actual regulations have been left as open as possible to promote innovation. Students must hand-solder the array, the overall footprint of the car is limited in size, and the finished vehicle cannot weigh less than one kilogram. Other than that - aside from simple safety considerations - go for it. If you want to run a lighter, smaller car with no battery, go for it. Amorphous solar cells? Go for it. A different type of battery chemistry with a custom solar panel design to match? Go for it. Three wheels? Go for it. In short, just go for it.