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Using Model Solar Racers As An Introduction To Engineering

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Design Experiences in Energy Systems

Tagged Division

Energy Conversion and Conservation

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.1556.1 - 12.1556.21



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Paper Authors

author page

Andrew Lau Pennsylvania State University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Using Model Solar Racers as an Introduction to Engineering


This engineering first-year seminar course was first offered in spring 2001 and is based on the successful middle school program, the Junior Solar Sprint. Student teams compete to design, build and race small-scale photovoltaic (PV)-powered vehicles. This hands-on experience serves many goals, most notably as a fun introduction to engineering design, analysis, and testing. Solar Racers makes a great topic because of the many relevant issues that first-year students can understand including renewable energy, vehicle physics, electrical circuits, team work, experimentation, material selection, design processes, mathematical analysis, and computer tools like spreadsheets and equation solvers. The use of knowledge and techniques from various courses and subjects helps demonstrate the application and integration so uncommon in the traditional first year of engineering. The culmination of the course is a race day where student teams compete with their classmates in a straight 70 foot long race. Two race heats are carried out, one with PV power and another with battery power. Teams prepare a summary report that describes their car details and highlights. Hands-on work is supplemented by brief lectures, readings, and homework problems. This paper describes the course and related resources sufficient to allow other interested faculty members to develop similar courses at the university level. Some of the engineering analysis may also be useful to middle school teachers and students to further the level of engineering rigor in similar projects. Experiences from five semesters of the course will be reviewed, along with recommendations for further improvement.


This course was first offered in spring 2001 and has been described in two previous conference papers.1,2 This paper reviews the relevant information from these earlier papers and describes new developments in this course including use of a new PV panel and motor combination. The course is a one-credit first-year seminar, Solar Racers, in the College of Engineering at Penn State, and is based on the successful middle school program, the Junior Solar Sprint (JSS).3 At the middle school level, student teams compete to build and race small-scale solar-powered vehicles. The program is highly successful and serves many goals: team building, introduction to engineering design, confidence building, and demonstrating that engineering can be fun. This engineering first-year seminar shares these goals, while significantly advancing the use of engineering analysis, testing, and design in the development of the prototypes. Our students also serve as mentors for local middle school students who compete in a regional solar race competition hosted by Penn State.

Lau, A. (2007, June), Using Model Solar Racers As An Introduction To Engineering Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--1788

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