Taylor High students compete in auto ecochallenge
A group of students from James E. Taylor High School approached their teacher at the beginning of the school year with an idea. They wanted to build a car. Not just any car, Taylor High physics and engineering teacher Kyle Brown said, but one that could compete against other students at institutions like Berkeley — yes, a university — to see whose would be the most energy efficient.
“They how it started. They wanted to build a car from the ground up,” Brown said.
The Taylor High team was among more than 1,000 high school and college students from the across the country who competed April 3-6 at the Shell Eco-Marathon Americas, held at the Sonoma Raceway near San Francisco.
After deciding they would use batteries to power their vehicle, the Taylor High team found an old bed frame to serve as its skeleton.
“They had to install their own brake system. They had to get the motor and attach the batteries,” Brown said. “They had to do the sautering and creating circuit boards and everything.”
Manan Bhatia, 18, heard about the competition from a friend who interns at Shell. They had to scrounge up some spare aluminium from the school’s robotics team then used computer aided drafting for its design.
“It’s definitely interesting. It was the only car at the competition that was a two-seater,” said Bhatia, a senior at Taylor who goes by “Manny.”
Johan Barnard, also 18 and also a Taylor High senior, tried to describe the appearance of their entry.
“You take a blender and throw in some tires, an old bed frame, pizza and a lot of Youtube videos and our car would come out,” Barnard said.
Their biggest challenge, at least mechanically, was the motor controller. While the idea of something like a gas peddle may seem like a non-brainer, it is actually part of a complex system that impacts the engine, the batteries and even the braking.
“When you brake, it pulls that energy back. That energy has to go somewhere,” Bhatia said.
The team spent several months designing the car and devoted several hours a day to making it come to life. Their teacher’s parents volunteered some spare garage space for the project.
“It worked out very well. All of their children had moved on and they missed having kids around,” Brown said of his mother and father’s contribution to the effort.
Bret Topham, 18, was one of the leaders of the Taylor High team. He said they spent several months designing the car and building it and devoted several hours a day to making it come to life.
“One of our biggest challenges was just figuring out how to organize things. What is your protocol? How do you deal with conflict? We had to figure these things out for a completely new club,” Topham said. “We were the first group from any Katy school to get to be in the Shell Eco-Marathon.”
Barnard, Bhatia and Topham all intend to pursue engineering degrees when they graduate. Topham will be studying aerospace engineering at the University of Texas while Bhatia will major in electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas. Barnard also will study electrical engineering at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
Most of the teams at the Sonoma Raceway were from engineering departments at top flight universities like Texas A&M and the University of Michigan. Students from as far away as Brazil also took part.
“That tells you the level of the competition that was there,” Brown said.
Many of the entries didn’t make it past the sponsor’s excruciatingly detailed inspection to get a spot on the actual racetrack that day. The Taylor High team just missed the cut.
“It was very rigorous. They have actual Shell engineers doing it,” Topham said.
Although they didn’t win, Brown said the team learned and gained a lot from the experience.
“They got to see that they had built a working car,” he said. “It’s really cool to see a bunch of guys working together toward some common goal.”