In a cross-country race using solar-powered vehicles, in which every driving decision counts, eight teams of high school students from across the United States and Mexico are relying on advanced technologies such as notebook computers, wireless communications, and global positioning system (GPS) software to help them reach the finish line.

The students are participating in the Green Mountain Energy Co. Winston Solar Challenge, an eight-day, 1,400-mile competition designed to motivate students in the sciences, provide hands-on experience with advanced technology, and emphasize the value of alternative energy sources, all in a project-based learning environment.

On July 17, the student racers began driving the solar-powered cars they built from Dell Computer Corp.’s campus in Round Rock, Texas, to the finish line in Columbus, Ind., near Indianapolis. They are scheduled to reach the finish line July 25.

Teams from Cameron, Dallas, and San Antonio, Texas; Columbus, Ind.; Houston, Miss.; Irvine, Calif.; Spartanburg, S.C.; and Juarez, Mexico are participating in this year’s competition.

“The kids did all of the work and installation. They wrote the programs, they monitor the race, and if there is a problem with anything, they fix it each night,” said the event’s director, Lehman Marks. “There is no one older than 21 doing anything technical.”

Each solar car is accompanied by a “chase team” riding in a normal vehicle fitted with some not-so-normal technologies.

The chase teams are using Dell Inspiron notebook computers to fix each solar car’s location, gauge battery usage, monitor weather patterns, track the competition, and record other important race data that factor into their race strategies. Solar car enthusiasts can track the progress of each team in real time on the Winston Solar Challenge web site.

The laptop computers allow students in this internationally recognized race to plan and track their cross-country trip with the help of wireless satellite and GPS technologies.

“The students participating in this program are learning collaboration and teamwork, and [they] are gaining a rich understanding of technology and communication skills—all of which are critical for success in the workplace of the 21st century,” said Bill Rodrigues, Dell’s vice president and general manager for education.

And they’re using some pretty serious “gee-whiz” equipment, too.

“On the solar car side, you have some really sophisticated technology with the cars themselves,” explained Marks.

The motors used are complex and monitored by computer to make sure they are working effectively. Participants also use some of the most sophisticated power-tracking instruments in the world to monitor the level of solar power their cars contain.

“The coolest technology in the car is the battery,” said student participant Jason Hendrickson, a senior at Buhler High School in Buhler, Kan. “There are lots of lighter batteries coming out now, and the big thing with solar cars is making the cars light but powerful.”

But the No. 1 technology item that excites kids is the motor, Hendrickson said. “They are these cool things called hub motors, and they use electromagnets. They are really efficient.”

Participants also use weather-tracking technology so they know what conditions they are driving into, Marks said. “If you are going to race a solar car, you have to know when there are clouds in front of you. This technology gives them real-time Doppler radar [imaging] of anywhere in the country.

“Students will not only use Dell notebooks to formulate their strategies to reach the checkered flag, they will also have the ability to communicate with family and supporters back home throughout the race,” he added.

Working in partnership with Dell are Verizon Wireless, 3Com, Terion Corp., Clear Stream Video, Texas Christian University, Casio, and Raytheon employees.

Some of the uses of technology during the race include:

  • Race judges provide solar team racing information wirelessly. Using a network consisting of Dell laptop computers, Verizon Wireless systems, 3Com modems, and special software developed by student participant William Shih, race observers can access real-time data on each solar team via the challenge’s web site. Race judges, traveling in a chase vehicle, provide almost continuous information to the site.

  • GPS systems provide solar team locations. GPS systems from Terion Corp. are located on each chase vehicle and provide data on each team’s movements along the racecourse. That information is displayed on the challenge’s home page via a link to the Terion home page.

  • Digital paging systems keep race staff informed. Winston Solar Challenge staff remain in contact with one other along each day’s 200-mile race course using Verizon’s new digital paging systems.

  • Streaming video shows each day’s race events. Clear Stream Video and Texas Christian University have teamed up to provide streaming video from each day’s race events. “We are all interconnected by this great technology that is run, operated, and connected by kids,” said Marks. Participants have the use of digital eMail and streaming video, maintained and run by students.

  • High-resolution digital photos also document the events. High-resolution digital photos are available each day along the racecourse, courtesy of Casio.

“The students participating in this race are our future—and so are clean energy sources,” said Gillan Taddune, vice president of the Texas arm of Green Mountain Energy Co., the title sponsor for the 2001 Winston Solar Challenge.

The communities along the racecourse have become involved with the annual summer race, according to Marks. “There are 10 million people between Austin and Indianapolis, and I think we may meet every one of them,” he said. “People all want to come out and see the cars and meet the kids. It’s wonderful.”

The Winston Solar Car Team hosted the first challenge in 1995, with 90 schools vying for a chance to compete in the event, nine schools building cars for the race, and three cars qualifying to participate.

The Winston School, an independent school in Dallas, Texas, now hosts the challenge annually. Even-numbered year events are closed-track races, and odd-numbered year events, like this year’s, are cross-country races.

Since its inception nine years ago, the Winston Solar Education Program has helped students from more than 800 schools in 20 countries learn the science and art of building and racing solar-powered cars.

“The most amazing thing about the Winston Solar Car Challenge is that technology is being used by kids to make decisions,” said Marks. “Every day in schools, you see lots of technology that kids just play with, and that is just not real. This is the real thing.”

Links:

Winston Solar Challenge
http://www.wscinfo.org

Green Mountain Energy Co.
http://www.greenmountain.com

Winston School
http://www.winston-school.org