Monday, March 1, 2021
March 1, 2021

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Kids light up for solar car race

Students learn about renewable energy as they build dragsters

By , Columbian political reporter
6 Photos
Bella Torres, 9, of Pioneer Elementary School, beams after a solar car she built with her team won her race.
Bella Torres, 9, of Pioneer Elementary School, beams after a solar car she built with her team won her race. Photos by James Rexroad for The Columbian Photo Gallery

At the gym in Hudson’s Bay High School, teams of wide-eyed students shouted, jumped up and down and anxiously clutched the sides of their heads as small cars powered by solar panels made their way across the track. The students spent months designing, building and troubleshooting these small vehicles. On Saturday, they were put to the test.

As soon as a row of industrial lights flicked on, the cars began scooting across six lanes lined with PVC pipes on a vinyl surface. Some cars zipped along before running out of energy. Some stopped after running into the rails. Others, slowly and steadily inched along to the finish line.

This was Clark County’s first Solar Car Challenge. The event is intended to give local students exposure to engineering and renewable energy technology. It was sponsored by Clark Public Utilities in partnership with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, an environmental nonprofit that focuses on renewable energy.

“We anticipated 20 to 25 teams (of three to five students) this year,” said Erica Erland, corporate communications manager for Clark Public Utilities. But when nearly 100 teams from schools around Clark County showed interest, she said, “The decision was made that if they want to participate, we would love to have them.”

The event is an outgrowth of a program that installed large-scale solar panels in schools said Erland. She said it shifted to offering teacher training in science and technology with a focus on renewable energy. It’s now giving students a hands-on challenge building solar cars.

Todd Reeve, the CEO of Bonneville Environmental Foundation, said the goal of the solar car program is to help kids build careers in clean energy. He said the program is designed to be easy for teachers to incorporate into their curriculum and that his organization has previously offered it in rural areas.

“This one is by far the largest event we’ve ever done,” he said.

For the Solar Car Challenge, teams of students from local elementary, middle and high schools were given kits that contained the basics for building a solar car, such as the solar panel, motor, axle, wheels and other items. Teams could make some modifications, such as using CDs for wheels, but had to stick to certain parameters.

“I learned a lot about engineering and how hard this is,” said Benny Enriquez, an eighth-grader at Jason Lee Middle School.

In between heats, he stood on the sideline clutching the car his team, the Flying Kittens, had made that featured a picture of a cat wearing a flight hat. He said that even the slightest bit of misplaced plastic could drastically slow down the car.

Jose Chaidez, a fourth- grader at Marrion Elementary School, said that early on his team, Las Chanclas, had trouble with the car’s battery smoking and that the car wobbled to the left.

Benjamin Alvarez, a fifth-grader at Marrion, said the team divided up the work to fix the problems. After taking apart and putting the car back together, they eventually solved the problem with the battery. The wheel was fixed with rubber bands and tape. Kevin Rodriguez, another fifth-grader at Marrion, said fixing the problems took creativity.

“The simplest answer is not always the best answer,” said Chaidez.