This time last year I was adding the final touches to my solar car. My partner, Lucas Amarins, and I were fixing a few engineering problems, enhancing the appearance, and testing it out on the Tisbury School blacktop under the watchful eye of our helpful science teacher, Mrs. Gatchell. We named it Ra, after the Egyptian Sun God, and in test runs it worked great (aside from the minor issue that it kept careening off to the right, causing multiple collisions with the other cars). Anxious about the weather, since the forecast looked grim and solar cars need lots of sunshine, we waited for the weekend with a mix of excitement and fear of embarrassing failure. When at last the time came, the skies were clear and the sun bright, but our car didn’t even leave the starting line. We never did figure out what went wrong.
Now the time has come again. At 10:15 a.m. this Saturday, May 2 (rain date May 3) nearly 200 fifth and sixth graders with 94 solar cars will be arriving at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club in Edgartown for the sixth annual Speed of Light Model Solar Car Race. Before the racing starts, contestants are quizzed on their knowledge of how the car works and the thinking behind their designs. At noon, when the sun is at its zenith, the races begin. By 1 p.m. the winner will be decided, the various other awards (knowledge, technical merit, and design) will be distributed, and the anxiety will be over, replaced by either a feeling of victorious elation or crushing defeat.
“I think it gives kids a good opportunity to work on a hands-on project, with solar panels and other components,” said Kara Gelinas, education coordinator for the Vineyard Energy Project.
With rising gasoline prices, coal hurting the environment and global warming becoming worse every year, it is important that the next generation have at least some experience working with the renewable energies needed to sustain the level of resource consumption that we have become accustomed to.
The solar cars can vary in size and shape, but the base principals are the same. Every pair of students is issued a small solar panel, roughly three inches wide and seven inches long, connected to a battery pack. They are also given a rectangular piece of balsa wood about the size of the solar panel, which they use box cutters to shape into a chassis, as well as two metal rods for axles and a couple of plastic cogs.
The students are then responsible for supplying wheels, which can be torn off old toys or crafted from stolen milk bottle tops. Students also must figure out how to keep the solar panel at the correct 45-degree angle for taking maximum advantage of the sunlight.
Cars in my class took the form of ice cream cones, fiery demons, and NASCAR-style race cars with turbo boosters to draw on. The teachers, once they had given out the supplies and a few handy tips, sat back to answer the occasional question, usually: “Why won’t our car move?” which I admit Lucas and I asked many times during the several weeks we were given to design, build, and tweak our car. The rest of the time, teachers drifted around the room, pointing out fatal errors in what students thought was brilliant engineering.
A year ago, on the Monday after our race, Mrs. Gatchell congratulated us, handed out some extra awards, and led us to the playground for some final racing before the cars had to be disassembled and the solar panels returned. Again, my car failed horribly, without even managing its usual “smash-every-other-car-on-the-blacktop” performance, and I went home that day resigned to the fact that I had no future as an automotive designer. Which is just as well, since they’re shutting Detroit down.
Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz is a seventh grade student at the Tisbury School.