Middle School Electric Car Project Moves Students from Theory to Practice
“Will someone hand me the pliers, please?”
“You need to connect the positive wire here, and then . . . .”
“I can’t get this connector off!”
It’s a Friday afternoon, and a dozen Middle School students are working hard to refurbish a rather unusual looking car, under the watchful eye and patient guidance of teacher Dan Sheets.
As part of their Alternative Energy exploratory class (a science elective), the students have taken on the challenge of fixing and restoring the donated vehicle—one of the first electric cars to be commercially produced in the U.S. If they can get it to work, the next step will be to convert it from a plug-in charging system to a solar-powered one by installing solar cells atop the roof and the sloping hood of the car. (Last spring, the first time the class was offered, students outfitted a recumbent trike with a solar panel to help power it.)
But before picking up any tools, the seventh and eighth graders (eight boys, four girls) in this fall’s class had to spend time learning about the range of alternatives to fossil fuels. They studied solar, hydro, and wind power, and the benefits and limitations of each. Every student built a cardboard-and-wire vertical wind turbine and learned how to measure the current produced, differentiate between volts and amps, and conduct research on the Internet. The key skills Sheets stresses in all his hands-on electives—which also include boat building and mountain biking—are scientific inquiry, understanding how things work, and the importance of visualizing and planning each step before embarking on a project.
Not until they had completed their pre-planning were students allowed to get their hands on the car, a Sebring-Vanguard Citicar, produced in response to the severe 1973–74 global oil crisis. Only about 2,500 of these cars were manufactured, and they consist of a light but sturdy aluminum frame, a body of bright ABS plastic, and a power source of six to eight interconnected batteries that can be charged from a 110-volt electrical outlet. The speedometer indicates a maximum speed of only 50 mph, and the range on a full charge would also be about 50 miles.
But that does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the students or their teacher for the opportunity to apply newly learned scientific theory to a real-life project!
In fact, even as the class period draws to an end, Stu and Maddy want to keep replacing and tightening wires to new connector ends. David is concentrating on prying off a rusted connector from old batteries inside the car. And Bobby and Olivia are making extra sure the plywood pieces replacing the broken hood of the car stay glued on good and tight.