High school students build solar cars and race for ‘adventure’

Sami Medudula wasn’t old enough to drive when he first got hooked on solar cars.

He saw a solar-powered car at a science fair when he was in middle school and was immediately excited. “I was like, ‘alright, I want to be a part of it,’” he said.

That enthusiasm has lasted. During his senior year at Rock Hill High School in Frisco, Medudula led a team of students as they built a solar-powered car from scratch.

High school students from around the country gather for this year’s solar car challenge

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Medudula and the Prosper Engineering Team are among 20 groups of high schoolers that arrived at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth on July 13 for the 2023 Solar Car Challenge.

The 15 teams that passed a series of safety checks departed July 16 for a planned 1,400-mile journey to Palmdale, Calif. The trip was cut short Tuesday in El Paso, however, when race staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Grant Bisillon of the Prosper Engineering Club smiles as he test drives a solar car at Texas Motor Speedway. The club built the solar car from scratch this year. They came in third place in their category during the Solar Car Challenge race.(Shafkat Anwar / Staff Photographer)

The teams spent at least a year and a half building their cars, an endeavor that can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000. Local sponsors help with the cost and materials for most teams.

Although only licensed drivers drove during the race, younger high schoolers are on teams as well.

The event aims to give teams the confidence required to plan, fund and build their projects. The challenge strives to inspire students to become renewable energy innovators.

‘A large Go Kart’

At the speedway last week, Medudula’s team had already passed five of seven safety tests.

“We’re ready to race,” said Medudula.

Teagan McGuire of Watertown High School, Wisc. performs a test drive. His team, Burning Daylight, was among those evaluated at the Texas Motor Speedway.(Shafkat Anwar / Staff Photographer)

The rigorous safety tests make sure all cars are highway ready and can travel at least 20 mph. Each solar car is accompanied by 3 standard vehicles for added safety. If a car breaks down or traffic is bad, a trailer is ready to tow them.

Teams began by making the frames of their cars and built everything else off that base. The cars can drive forward, reverse, park and turn like any car, but they don’t have many of the bells and whistles common in a typical family vehicle.

Medudula said driver comfort is sacrificed for efficiency and safety.

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“Sadly, you don’t have power steering,” he said.

The Ballard Bombers, a team from Barlow, Ky., agreed that the experience of driving their car was “like driving a large go-kart – but faster.” They recently added a rainbow-striped cushion to the driver’s seat for bonus comfort and decoration.

Inside the Prosper Engineering Team’s one seat solar car.(Shafkat Anwar / Staff Photographer)

Team captain Maddie Stowell said she was “looking for adventure” on this journey. “I haven’t left Kentucky,” she said. “It’s nice to leave.”

Efficiency is key

For the Prosper Engineering Team and the Ballard Bombers, aerodynamics were a primary concern when designing their cars.

Jan Kleissl, a solar power researcher and professor at the University of California San Diego, said this is a good approach if you’re trying to power a car with the sun.

A solar powered car must be aerodynamic, efficient and entirely covered in solar panels in order to go long distances, Kleissl said.

Grace Kiowski of Greenville High School, Tex., is towing in her team’s solar car as they prepare for safety tests. The cars were designed with aerodynamics in mind.(Shafkat Anwar / Staff Photographer)

“People have certainly shown that you can make it work,” he said. But these design constraints mean it is difficult to make a solar car that most consumers would buy.

Some teams built low-lying rectangular cars and covered the entire upward-facing surface with solar panels, leaving only a small space for a one-seat cockpit. Other cars had narrower bodies with solar panels raised on a platform above the driver.

The Solar Car Challenge and similar programs are an opportunity for enthusiastic students to learn the ins and outs of engineering and experiment with renewable energy, Kleissl said.

“Those are … very cool projects … that actually motivate students to contribute to our climate solutions,” he said.

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‘Can we please build a car?’

Inspiring a new generation of renewable energy innovators was part of Lehman Marks’ goal when he founded the Solar Car Challenge 30 years ago.

Marks, a former teacher at The Winston School in Dallas, took students to see a solar car being built at the University of North Texas. They couldn’t wait to start building their own version.

All the way back from Denton, all they could say [was], ‘Doc, can we please build a car? Can we please build a car?’” Marks said.

Students across teams work together to move a solar car with mechanical troubles off a trailer and into a group photo.(Shafkat Anwar / Staff Photographer)

The next year, they built a car. Marks said even students who struggled with his physics lessons got excited about engineering concepts during the process.

A few years after that success, the Solar Car Challenge was born.

Now, according to Marks, 261 schools around the world participate in the Solar Car Challenge. Many are in different stages of building cars for future races.

The challenge alternates annually between cross-country races and races on the track at the speedway.

Marks says it’s pretty simple to sell this opportunity to students. “High school kids want a car,” he said, so he asks them, “Don’t you want to build a car? Don’t you want to power it by the sun? And don’t you want to drive it at the Texas Motor Speedway?”

Continuing the adventure

This pitch worked for this year’s students, many of whom have been participating in the Solar Car Challenge since starting high school. Excitement was in the air as they prepared for their race on Friday.

Although the race was cut short, Medudula and Stowell were excited about the 3 days of driving they completed.

High school students from around the country pose for a photo with their solar cars.(Shafkat Anwar / Staff Photographer)

“It had its ups and downs,” said Stowell. Her team had motor trouble on day 1 and battery trouble on day 2. “We did really well the third day,” she said.

The Prosper Engineering Team came in 3rd in their division. Medudula is proud of their car, which they built entirely in the last year, standing up so well against cars that had been competing for multiple years.

Neither student is done with solar car racing. Stowell, a junior, says that she and her team are already discussing ideas to make their car more efficient for the next race.

Students, working with parents and advisors, put finishing touches on their solar cars during evaluation.(Shafkat Anwar / Staff Photographer)

Although Medudula is graduating, he’s already signed up to be on the solar car team at his university. He said that one of his favorite parts of the race was seeing the reactions to the car as they drove through small towns.

Undeterred by the end of the race, the team is continuing on an unofficial road trip in their solar car. We’re just driving around for fun [and] trying to get more people to see [the car].”

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