Ten odd-shaped cars moved around the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway track in Ft. Worth at speeds of up to 35 mph, and the 155,000-seat stadium was empty.

The cars would be no competition for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and other NASCAR drivers—but the cars’ designers may soon be giving engineers, scientists, and inventors a run for their money.

The solar-powered cars built by high-school teams from several states were competing in the seventh annual Dell-Winston Solar Car Challenge, which started July 16 and ended July 18. The car that finishes the most laps wins.

“It gets kids excited about science again,” said Lehman Marks, who coordinates the race and heads the science department at The Winston School in Dallas. “The program is definitely increasing the number of students going into science-related fields, but no matter what they go into, they can use these skills.”

Marks founded the event as a new way to teach at The Winston School, a private school for students with dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder, and other learning challenges.

As Winston students excelled in the program, Marks expanded it by providing curriculum materials and workshops for schools across the nation.

Students work as long as 18 months on the project—raising money for equipment and other expenses that can run from $10,000 to $20,000, planning their cars, and then building.

The cars must meet certain weight requirements but take on different forms. The sun powers the solar panels, but that energy also is stored in batteries that can run for a few hours in the dark, Marks said.

Last year’s winner from Houston, Miss., competed again this year, as well as a junior team of ninth- and 10th-graders from the school.

“Teamwork is the key,” said Austin Jordan, 14. “We’re not going that fast, but we’ll last longer and finish more laps.”

The Chamizal school in Juarez, Mexico, also has two teams in the contest. Other teams are from Pampa (Texas) High; Newburgh (N.Y.) Free Academy; C4-Area Vocational School in Columbus, Ind.; and Ridway (Colo.) School.

Marks said students from different teams often hug him and tell him the program has changed their lives.

“For an old teacher, that’s like a million dollars,” Marks said.

Dell Computer Corp., in its second year sponsoring the contest, is awarding a $5,000 scholarship to the top female participant to encourage more girls to study science.

“We can’t think of a better program where students will learn skills critical to them when they enter the work force,” said Amy King, a Dell spokeswoman.

For the second year in a row, the Houston Solar Race Team took top honors, completing a total of 241 laps around the track in three days.


The Winston School

Dell Computer Corp.