If you combine high-speed remote-controlled cars with the fragile, high-tech components of a solar array, you’ve got both the makings of a Solar Roller car and a recipe for lessons in perseverance. That’s what Basalt High School coach Karen Ross witnessed at this year's Solar Rollers Colorado League competition in Denver recently.
“The program involves building a working car with a solar array,” said Ross. “The motor is powered by the battery which is in turn powered by sun. What the kids got out of the process, though, wasn’t so much the technical knowledge of solar power and electric cars. The benefits were also learning how to persevere and work together as a team.”
Basalt High School is home to three teams this year in an after-school club coached by Ross. Basalt Middle School’s Makerspace served as a home base for a fourth Basalt team sponsored by the Aspen Science Center that consisted of middle and high school students. All four teams received their car kits in March and had two months to work through an extensive online course teaching them everything from general principles of renewable energy to how to build a car chassis and set up a solar array.
“The online course was really cool,” said Connor Hoffman with the BMS/BHS team Sun Seekers. “Without the course we wouldn’t have had a car.”
Both Ross and Hoffman noted that independent research was equally important to designing the solar cars. That research convinced Hoffman’s team to innovate, and they showed up at the Colorado League Solar Roller competition in Denver with the only vehicle sporting a three-dimensional roof designed to catch sunlight from all sides. The car garnered attention for its unique design but ended up being too heavy to be a top contender in the competitions. Hoffman noted that the experience his team gained will be valuable when they move up to join the high school teams next year.
Ross saw similar dedication and determination in the high school teams who sometimes put in five-hour sessions after school and did extensive research beyond the online course to improve their car designs. All the hard work culminated this past weekend when teams from across the state brought 32 solar cars to compete over two days at Elitch Gardens Arena in Denver. While Ross admits she’s not a competitive person, she said, “you get there and the energy and excitement is just so fun.”
The weekend includes competitions ranging from an academic Q&A with judges to speed and duration races that test vehicles’ use of batteries and solar power. Basalt teams experienced various levels of glitches and success.
Team DADS (Downvalley Average Dudes) took third place in the Rally Around the Sun final competition, a one-hour race to rack up laps on battery and solar power. In the 10-minute heat to qualify, their car took a direct hit in the first lap from another car, and the team spent the rest of the heat trying to replace the broken motor.
“It happens all the time,” said Ross. “But their perseverance was amazing to watch. With one minute left, they were still trying to get the motor on. They deserved to be in the finals just because of how hard they worked and focused.”
Ultimately, because so many cars broke down, all cars were allowed into the finals, where DADS driver Grant Borchelt led the team to a top three finish.
The Tech Team faced challenges of a different sort. New to the Solar Rollers program, the members had soldered their solar array incorrectly. Far from the cutthroat attitude of other tech competitions, the Solar Rollers organization stepped in and provided the team both with soldering lessons and new solar panels. While other students like Basalt's third team GFI (Ground Fault Interruptors) participated in races, the Tech Team doubled down and rebuilt their vehicle to working status. They walked away with honed new skills and the competition’s Race Repair Award.
“I heard from all the kids that next year they’re going to improve their design,” said Ross. “Nobody was giving up. They were all saying, ʻwe’re going to do this again and do it better.’”
Solar Rollers is based out of Carbondale and hosts competitions from Dallas to Dubai. Joining the league is no small commitment. Each kit costs $2,000.
“It’s a big investment for a school,” admitted Ross. “The Basalt Education Foundation has funded one car for next year but we’re hoping to have three cars. We welcome sponsors and donors to contact us.”
Solar Rollers is also looking for higher level sponsors to support the overall program as well as high school students interested in volunteering with them for the summer. To reach Karen Ross about sponsoring a future car, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Solar Rollers, visit www.solarrollers.org.