December 2, 2016

100 Years of Educational Excellence: Focus on the Solar Car

100 Years of Educational Excellence: Focus on the Solar Car
Photo by Steve Shedd
August 2, 2012

Actually, a better title for this piece would be “The Little College That Could” because Principia’s solar car team has done it again. Last month, the team not only captured third place in the 2012 American Solar Challenge (ASC) race but also won its sixth safety award!

The College’s updated car, Ra 7s, completed the 1,650-mile race from Rochester, New York, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, on July 21, crossing the finish line ahead of teams from renowned engineering schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley. (First- and second-place winners were the University of Michigan and Iowa State University, respectively.)

Attaining a top-three ranking in this eight-state, eight-day race is a testament to the caliber of the College’s students, faculty, and staff as well as to the breadth of opportunities available through a liberal arts education at Principia.

The solar car team’s motto—“One Mind, one light, infinite rays”—aptly captures the group’s willingness to put new ideas into practice, learn from experience, and keep the high goal—to glorify God—constantly in view.

For 20 years now, both technical and spiritual learning have fueled the solar car program’s journey through untold hours and 27,000+ miles. Principia College is unique among the educational institutions that normally compete in this arena not only due to the school’s size but also because its team is composed of liberal arts and science majors, not engineering students. Despite these differences, Principia’s team has attracted strong outside interest and support. Technical and financial resources have been forthcoming as needs have arisen in the design, testing, and racing phases. Individuals have been extremely generous, as have business entities such as Siemens, which has provided free CAD software. This support is especially appreciated since the solar car program, which is not part of the College’s operating budget, depends entirely on fundraising.

A can-do spirit, attention to detail, hard work, good humor, and a focus on spiritual growth are the hallmarks of the solar car program’s remarkable success. Prior to this summer’s race, students and faculty willingly spent weeks of their summer vacation refitting and fine-tuning the car. This model features a new silicon array to capture maximum energy from the sun’s rays and several other modifications to comply with competition regulations.

Team business manager and co-driver Kali McKee, a junior, describes the “wide range of preparations” that go into preparing for a race: Logistics such as housing, food, budget, and scheduling have to be handled well in advance. Packing the trailer and outfitting the caravan is done about a week before the race. And, most importantly, McKee says, “Leading up to the race and during the race, the team puts a lot of time into mental and spiritual preparation. . . . This includes daily readings from the Scriptures and the weekly Bible Lesson . . . .”

During last month’s race, the team received an outpouring of support and warm hospitality from Principia alumni who opened their homes—and, in the case of First Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan, their Sunday School—allowing the team’s 18 members to bed down for the night. Many hosts also fed them breakfast. And on one occasion, a generous family with no connection whatsoever to Principia warmly welcomed the team into their home and fed them. Principia Clubs along the route got in on the fun, too, providing sandwiches and drinks and, in Minneapolis, organizing a raucous cheering committee at the race’s end (along with a picnic lunch and, later that evening, a presentation and dinner at the local Museum of Science).

Principia’s solar car team is a student-led effort, but three advisors—John Broere, Joe Ritter, and Steve Shedd—provide invaluable support. Needless to say, all three were delighted by the team’s most recent accomplishment. In the words of Shedd, whose daughter and eventual son-in-law were members of the very first solar car team in the mid-’90s, “The only expectations the team had going into this race were to glorify God and do our best. And we met both of those.”

Looking ahead, business manager McKee says there are plans to design and build Ra 8. Additionally, the team will look into various race options—the World Solar Challenge in Australia, the South African Challenge, and the next ASC—to determine the feasibility of participating.

Don’t miss these photo highlights from the race!

Note: For more information about the solar car program’s start in the 1990s, check out what Principia’s first solar car team members had to say about their fantastic learning experience. See the article beginning on p. 34 of the Winter 2009 Principia Purpose.

In addition, learn more about the award-winning documentary on Principia’s solar car team.

  • AEnoch

    Congratulations to the RA team. Your example is there for the whole world to see. 
    Sunshine is the only income we’ve got.

  • Claudia

    What a wonderful accomplishment and an inspiration to many.

  • Radine Trees Nehring

    My husband and I have followed Principia’s solar car races from the beginning with avid interest.  We even convinced our Arkansas Public Television station to air the film that was available for PBS.  WOW.   Thanks for sharing this!

  • Ruth Lacy Plum

    Terrific accomplishment!  3rd place is fantastic and I especially like the ‘glorify God’ part.  Way to go team!  What a wonderful experience you all have to put on your resumes.  Thank goodness Princpia says “YES” to such possibilities and opportunities.  It’s great how many friends have been made through this renewable engineering endeavor.  Dr Holtzberlein would be proud as he taught a solar energy course at Prin in the 80’s.