A sunroof that saves gas
High schoolers travel cross-country in Solar Car Challenge
It was 105 degrees in Dallas that day, yet instead of seeking shelter from the sweltering sun, a group of 10 teens from the Winston School were harnessing its power.
“We built a solar car from scratch,” said recent graduate Gage Pielsticker. “And drove it halfway across the country.”
Pielsticker is captain of the Winston Solar Academy team, which competed against 30 other high schools in the annual Solar Car Challenge, a 1,300-mile trip from the Texas Motor Speedway to Palmdale, Calif. The competition originated at the Winston School in 1990, but the school was absent from the race for a few years as it sought a new technical expert.
Enter Mike Rogge, a systems engineer at Raytheon in Richardson, Texas. Rogge became involved with the school after a tornado destroyed his home in December, 2015. A group of Winston School students were performing community service for credit. They came across his personal items and paperwork while cleaning up debris.
“When they learned I was an engineer at Raytheon and I built drag car racers with my dad as a teenager, they hooked and reeled me in,” Rogge said. “Plus I found the school’s mission very admirable, and you can’t find a better group of kids.”
The Winston School, with about 150 students in grades K-12, is a college preparatory school specifically meant for students with unique cognitive challenges.
“We meet the needs of students with learning differences,” said Rebbie J. Evans, head of school. “The kids are extremely bright, but require differentiated instruction in the classroom.”
This was Rogge’s second year assisting the team, and the first year under Raytheon sponsorship. Rogge spent much of his time preparing for last year’s race by teaching the students to weld safely, use power tools and wire the solar-powered car.
“While most kids their age go home and want to play video games, these kids go home to study electronics and practice coding,” Rogge said. “That’s what they do for fun.”
The engineer even taught the students Agile software development practices, taking an iterative approach and breaking up a project into smaller sections, continuously improving and receiving constant team feedback.
“The best way to learn something is to just get thrown into it,” Rogge said. “It’s surprising how fast that these kids learn and adapt.”
This year, Rogge saw the fruits of his labor pay off. Since the students are now proficient with the tools, they spent more time improving the car.
“With Mike’s mentorship, we’re now able to make use of our engineering knowledge,” Pielsticker said. “He’s taught us to think through our problems. If something isn’t working, he tells us, ‘Take a step back, look at the problem, study it, and you can figure it out.'”
Pielsticker is attending Oklahoma State University to study computer science. The team captain coded a telemetry app that monitored the car’s efficiency.
“I initially joined the team last year because I just wanted to hang out with my friends,” he said. “Now, it’s become my passion, and I’m hoping I can turn that passion into a profession.”
The same students who built the car also drove it, and while the car can reach speeds up to 50 mph, Pielsticker said they drove around 20 mph so they didn't consume more energy than they produced. That's where Pielsticker's telemetry app came in.
The winner is determined by the actual distance the car drives without being trailered. Western High School of Davie, Florida, won the classic division this year, driving its car 544 miles of the race, while the Winston School finished in 10th place, driving 203 miles.
"The race to us meant much more than who finished first or last," Pielsticker said. "Being able to pass the finish line with a car that we've put two years of our life into was one of the most gratifying and memorable experiences of high school."
The race gave Pielsticker and his teammates an opportunity to learn skills they can carry forward in their academic and professional careers, such as mechanical, electrical and software engineering, as well as problem solving, team building and project management.
"The opportunity to work with a team to accomplish a shared goal," Pielsticker said, "was an amazing look into my future as an engineer."