Engineer, teach thyself
Engineering clubs let students learn from their own quirky obsessions. Case in point: Waterloo's student-built solar car
Joey Coleman, Macleans.ca | Sep 13, 2007 |
It travels faster than the speed limit on any Canadian highway, can drive coast-to-coast without stopping for gas, often gets mistaken for a UFO, and does all of this on less power than it takes to operate a toaster. It is the University of Waterloo's solar-powered car, the Midnight Sun IX, a vehicle that can move at speeds of up to 115 km/h, from dawn until a few hours after dusk. Right now, this latest version is crated up and being transported to Australia, where later this fall it will compete in the World Solar Challenge, a biannual 3,000-km race across the outback, and the premier competition of its kind. And while the solar car is an engineering wonder, what may be even more impressive is that the project is entirely powered by student volunteers.
From the person hoisting the vehicle to the mechanic under the hood, from the business management team squeezing CEO hands for donations to the project manager, each and every one is a Waterloo student. And they aren't even doing it for an academic credit: this isn't a course, it's a club. The only faculty member involved is the faculty adviser, and he just "makes sure that we aren't breaking any policies, or doing something unsafe," says Jessica Whitney, a 2007 civil engineering graduate and the business manager for Midnight Sun IX.
What's most exceptional is that student-run clubs like the Waterloo solar-car project are common at engineering schools across Canada. They are also wide-ranging. At the University of British Columbia, for instance, engineering students designed a car that makes Smart Cars look like gas-guzzling Hummers by comparison. Their Supermileage car can travel from Vancouver to Halifax on a gallon of gas, and was named one of the 50 top inventions of 2006 by Time magazine. On the other hand, over at the University of Alberta, the Autonomous Robotic Vehicle Project built a robot named "Ursa Minor" which, inspired by too many movies, is bent on world domination. Ursa ran for University of Alberta Student Union president this spring, but failed to win. "I am not sure this is the end of Ursa Minor -- after all, it took three movies to destroy the Death Star," says Michael Janz, winner of the election. Janz expects Ursa will only improve; the U of A already has a robot that is unbeatable at checkers.
At the University of Waterloo, all the members of the solar-car project have other commitments: part-time jobs, involvement in other student groups and the like. But, as with other engineering-club teams, the car club is special: members often get together in their office just to socialize and do schoolwork together. "It is more than just a team, it is like an extended family," says Chris Jee, a fourth-year electrical engineering student who is the team's primary electrical manager. At the heart of the camaraderie, though, is the project: members spent thousands of hours together building the club's ninth version of a solar car. Design work started in October 2005, with more than 400 students involved over two years and a core group of 15, before the car was unveiled on Aug. 12, 2007.
The Midnight Sun IX is 1.8 m wide, five metres long, and just less than one metre high(by comparison, a Toyota Prius hybrid is 1.72 m wide, 4.5 m long, and 1.5 m high). Most of the funding for developing it came from corporate donations and in-kind gifts. The project enjoys sponsorship from over 50 businesses, university departments, foundations and individuals. Gold level sponsors Advantage Engineering Inc., American Dicing Inc., Fleet Canada Inc., and Research In Motion each contributed over $25,000. The money was welcome: building the vehicle and ancillary costs -- such as transporting it to Australia -- cost nearly $200,000.
Wayne Loucks, Waterloo's associate dean for undergraduate studies in engineering, believes strongly that being part of one of the many teams offered in engineering benefits the students by bringing "more realism to the education experience." The solar car team, "along with all the student projects, are important to the environment we provide to students," he says. It's not just the technical aspects that benefit students, but the chance to fundraise and manage the team that add to the student's education. "In the real world, there is so much more than what can be taught in the classroom alone," Loucks says. "The deadlines involved are more real: if you do not raise the funds you need in time, your project does not move forward. With classes, if you miss a deadline, the class continues, you lose the marks but things continue to move forward. In the real world, that does not happen."
Along with gaining real-life experience, there are other perks to being involved in projects such as the solar-car club. Although the team's work is not part of the curriculum, students do sometimes find ways to integrate aspects from the project with courses(all Waterloo engineering students are required to complete a senior design project, and some, for instance, have been known to design widgets for the team, submit them for marks, and then install them in a vehicle). And then there is Oktoberfest, a major event in Kitchener/Waterloo, where the solar-car team is one of the participants in the parade(the vehicle is street legal, and licensed and registered in Ontario, but on the road is escorted by support vehicles for visibility and safety). In fact, the car is among the main attractions, and Whitney says "one of the great things about being on the team is how excited people get when they see the car." Children especially like it, and both schools and day camp groups come to the university to see and learn about the vehicle.
Team members do not limit their education campaigns to Waterloo. In 2004, they set a world record for longest journey by a solar car by driving an earlier version of Midnight Sun 15,079 km over 41 days. That trip covered the United States and southern Canada, and was meant to educate people about the potential of alternative fuels and solar energy. Most importantly, participants had the time of their lives, visiting places such as Vancouver, San Francisco, Houston, Florida, Washington, New York City and Halifax before finally ending their journey on Parliament Hill. Their Guinness record hangs proudly in the team office. But the car was so unusual that it was often mistaken for something else. "When we drove across North America, people twice called into local radio stations to report a UFO on the highway," says Whitney.