In preparation for an upcoming competition, 20 students in Palmdale High School’s Engineering Academy have been spending as much time as possible perfecting their solar and electric cars for an annual race in Texas, under the watchful eyes of Ruben Rodriguez, the Academy coordinator.
This year’s race is scheduled from July 11 to July 18 in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Solar Car Challenge at the Texas Motor Speedway is a STEM-based initiative meant to motivate students in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Students this year hope to surpass last year’s victory when their solar car took second place in the Veterans Classic Division. Palmdale High students came in seventh overall last year for various competition categories.
Although the Academy has 30 students in the class, Rodriguez said 20 have been selected to make the trip — that’s two teams of 10 — one team working on the Helius Falcon, the solar car, and the other group building the Electric Falcon, the E-Car team.
“We named it Falcon because that’s our school mascot,” said Kassandra Vazquez, 18 and a graduating senior, planning to study mechanical engineering at the University of California, Irvine.
When asked why engineering, Kassandra said, because it offers “the possibility of creating things to help people.”
“I’m the chief executive officer of this program,” Kassandra said, noting that she’s also on the electric car team. “I’ve been in this class since my junior year. It’s an optional course you take. It’s separate from the Engineering Academy’s required courses. This is a bonus program.”
The Electric Team makes the motor run and is in oversees all the electrical components, she said.
The Automotive Team deals with the brakes, the wheels, the alignment and tire pressure.
The Fabrication Team is tasked to build the car.
Daniel Sanchez, 16 and a junior, is the Automotive Team Lead for the solar car.
“At the moment we’re relocating the rear tire,” Daniel said. “We’re having certain items replaced, such as the sprocket to test the vehicle’s speed with different sprockets. Different sizes allow different speeds.”
“I’m our Electrical Lead,” said David Ortiz, 16 and a junior. “We’ve never done an E-Car before. It’s basically a race car that we can drive and use in our normal daily life.”
Team members do cross over to help each other with their vehicles.
“On the solar car, we’re wiring the main propulsion system,” David said. “It’s basically our drive system, putting our fuses together, our internal and external disconnects. Our motor controller as well. We put that in place.”
Luis Parra, 17 and a junior, is the Fabrication Team Lead.
“For the electric car, we’re working on the frame for the windshield,” Luis said.
The E-Car has two seats, one for the driver and the other for a passenger. It also has a trunk.
“The E-Car is more of a day-to-day driver car and the solar car, more of a race car, a one-seater,” Luis said.
The team goal is to make the E-Car as efficient as a regular car. “You can run errands with it,” Luis said. The trunk is meant to store and transport things.
In fact, in the competition E-Car drivers are challenged to go through the drive-through of a fast food restaurant and buy something. The competition judge tells the team what he wants to be transported that day.
This competition is always in Texas, Kassandra said. “The only thing that changes is if it’s a close track or cross-country.” Last year was cross-country. “We went all the way from Fort Worth, Texas, to Palmdale, Calif.,” in the solar car.
The metal car frame has no side doors for protection in traffic. Kassandra said the vehicle has solar panels on top and a windshield.
“When we were going cross-county, it was like a convoy, with a lead car and two chase cars behind the solar car,” David said. That is intended to protect the solar car from other traffic along the road. “If we hit traffic, we have to dump them all. We pull over, let them pass, then continue on our way.” That road trip took the students seven days from departure in Fort Worth to arrival in Palmdale.
Once the cars are ready to roll, students will conduct test runs at Willow Springs Raceway.
The cost for this program to send both teams to Texas ranges between $30,000 and $40,000, according to Lunden Holloway, 18 and a senior at Palmdale High. Students raise the funds through sponsors including Lockheed Martin, TSC, Antelope Valley Union High School District, the Antelope Valley Mall and Willow Springs.
“We do presentations and see if they’re interested in us,” Luis said.
Palmdale High is one of the only public schools on the West Coast to compete, Luis said.
“In the competition it’s mostly charter or private schools because of funding,” Lunden said.
A lot of schools enter from across the country, Luis said. “In the first three days, some are eliminated. They don’t pass the safety test.”
“We get a lot of experience from this, a lot of hands-on experience,” Luis said. “We receive more than we put in.”