By Nicolette Toussaint
Sopris Sun Correspondent
The checkered flag has been dropped!
High school student teams are signing up to build Solar Rollers this month, and the race is on. Thrilling as it is, the mini Daytona 500 that will be held next May isn’t just about the clash of remote-controlled, solar-powered cars hurtling along at speeds of up to 28 miles per hour. It’s really a race to educate students about energy.
And this year, it will be zipping out of the Roaring Fork Valley into other states.
“This will be the first time that Solar Rollers has gone beyond the local region,” said Noah Davis, the program’s founder.
In 2013, four Roaring Fork Valley teams participated; in 2014, a total of 10 teams came from a geographical area that stretched from Aspen to Summit County. “We are going be challenged to handle 40-50 teams this year,” Davis muses. Teams from Reno, Nevada and Austin, Texas have already signed up.
“This is going to be nationwide, and with remote locations and races, we have to scale it up,” Davis told The Sopris Sun. “It’s tough right now because at the same time as we’re recruiting teams, we need to grow the board, raise funds and get to where we can hire staff.” Davis, who managed Solar Energy International’s K-12 education program for five years, spun the program off last year. It’s now run by the new non-profit Energetics Education.
Prior to moving to Carbondale, Davis lived in southeast Australia. The International Panel on Climate Change has identified the area as a “hotspot.” While living there, Davis saw it devastated by drought, brush fires and choking smoke. “I’m a teacher, and I have taught a lot of subjects,” he said. “But that showed me that there’s really no point in teaching anything but solutions to climate change right now. And that means understanding energy.”
Energetics Education has received local seed funding and it now hopes to move farther afield. After giving presentations at a slew of solar-industry events last summer, the non-profit fielded interest from both individuals and private companies. Energetics Education is currently partnering with two non-profits in Reno, and is also working with manufacturers of photo voltaic cells and solar-powered cars.
Teams that join Solar Rollers receive a car-building kit in January. “To call it a kit is a little misleading,” said board chair Susy Ellison. “It’s a bag of parts, and it’s not a step-by-step process. They have to design the car, and then solder and wire everything together. Initially, they look in the bag and say, ‘Oh my god! What is all this stuff?’”
Ellison, who retired in 2014 after teaching science in the Roaring Fork Valley for 25 years, said that students are not only learning technological skills, they are getting a leg up on competitive college entrance applications and preparing for future jobs. One Solar Roller alumna wrote about her experience in her college entrance essays and got admitted into Princeton, Columbia and MIT, but she chose to go to Stanford.
Davis added, “We get bright kids who are not necessarily joiners. They are not on sports teams. It’s often their first experience of working with others toward common goals.”
To win the race, a team needs hands-on building skills, teamwork, good time management, and judgment. Davis illustrated that skill set by telling the story of Roaring Fork High School, the team that came in second last year. “They decided to drive sensibly and avoid accidents. They actually did that, and they were in the lead. But they had built their car early in the season when we had access to solar cells that were good, but not great. Later, we got great cells, and we told the team that they could rebuild. It was going to cost them a couple afternoons of soldering to do that, and the Roaring Fork team said, ‘No we can win the race on these cells.’”
Continuing, Davis said “It was painful. The Roaring Fork team had 17 percent efficiency in their cells, and others had 20 percent. Every other car had something break. Meanwhile Roaring Fork kept going and going, hundred of laps! But all of the broken cars got fixed, and sure enough, those cars caught up and passed them. If Roaring Fork had had the right cells, they would have won by a long shot. This year, they are eager to come back and prove themselves with a win.”
Teachers, students, teams, volunteers and donors can find out more about the program at www.solarrollers.org.