No Sun? No Worries – the Solar Sprint Goes On

Over 200 area middle-school students celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the Junior Solar Sprint on Drexel’s campus last weekend, learning a timely lesson in resourcefulness and adaptation. With a persistent downpour beating on the roof of the Armory building, students inside taped battery packs to their solar cars and raced despite the lack of sunshine.

The Junior Solar Sprint.
The Junior Solar Sprint took place in the Armory due to rainy weather.

The Sprint, a STEM engagement and education event, invites 5th through 8th graders to design, build and race solar-powered cars so they develop hands-on experience in science, technology engineering, and math. Working with the annual sponsor, the Philadelphia Solar Energy Association (PSEA), Drexel hosted the race with faculty, staff and student volunteers from the College of Engineering. Under the direction of Jason Baxter, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, students were given a tour of CoE after the race.

Some 72 cars from eight schools and two after-school programs were entered

“I don’t really mind because our solar panel doesn’t work that great anyway,” said Lucy Figg, a sixth grader at the Wyndcroft School, when asked about the impact of batteries on her team’s entry, “9 ¾” (note: see Harry Potter). She gestured at the purple can of soda taped to the car’s undercarriage. “It has to carry a load. That’s the load. The panel wasn’t doing that good.”

The first heat got off to a noisy start, with many students troubleshooting last-minute technical difficulties or struggling to carry their entries to the starting line without unintentional disassembly. Officials gestured. Drexel students directed. The loudspeaker blared, “The first race is always a little chaotic.” And yet the day was an expression of technology and effort realized, as returning students and first-time racers got to display their models with pride.

“I went to a science fair with my teacher to train others how to do this with the small knowledge I have,” said Kamari McIvor, a student at the Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Middle School. In fact, so many kids turned out at that build that all the materials were used up, and Kamari was left without an entry. So the Liberty Baptist Church on Larchwood Avenue funded his appearance, donating a $60 solar-car kit “and the solar panel.” Kamari named his entry “Yellow Lightning.”

Another student espied the $66 solar-powered backpack donated for an event raffle and said to his father, “Can we just pay $66 and get that?”

The Junior Solar Sprint is a national program led by the Army Educational Outreach Program, and sponsored locally by the PSEA. Students develop teamwork and problem-solving capabilities, investigate environmental issues and use STEM skills to build the fastest, most interesting craft possible.

The PSEA is a volunteer-based, member-supported non-profit whose goal is to promote the rapid adoption of solar energy in the Philadelphia region and across the state. It was founded in 1980, and has sponsored the Sprint each year since 1994.

Drexel University and the CoE teamed up with PSEA for the first time this year as part of its efforts to support STEM education in Philadelphia. Other STEM efforts during the year include Philly Materials Day and Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.

Winners of the Junior Solar Sprint
Jason Baxter (rear left) with winners of the Junior Solar Sprint.

“Not only do the students learn about motors, gears, friction, electrical circuits, and solar energy conversion, but they also learn about teamwork, troubleshooting, and the engineering design process. They learn how to make things work. And they learn that engineering is fun,” said Baxter. “Drexel students from our chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and from the Electric Vehicle team, along with Professor Aaron Fafarman and I, have enjoyed volunteering with JSS for several years.  When the opportunity came up to host at Drexel, we were excited to form a stronger partnership.  

“Experiential learning and outreach to the surrounding community are both central to Drexel’s mission,” he added. “I think the participants really enjoying being on Drexel’s campus and having the chance to tour some of our lab facilities.”

Liz Robinson, PSEA’s executive director, said the organization was pleased with the event space. “As an indoor space, the Drexel Armory was a fabulous venue: a huge, open sporting facility with lots of room to stretch out and race,” she said. “The only way to improve it would be to have a retractable roof.”

--By Wendy Plump, Staff Writer, CoE

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