A dozen juniors and seniors at Bentonville High School are spending their seminar periods and their Saturday mornings converting a 2002 Chevy Malibu into an electric car.
The students are trying to finish the project for an April contest in North Carolina sponsored by the electric vehicle company EVAmerica. Students from across the country will compete to see which car can maintain the longest charge, has the best acceleration, and competes best in a slalom course.
The Technical Student Association Club project began when teachers challenged students to pick a project with an engineering slant. Students decided on the engine conversion and then researched the project using YouTube videos and other online resources.
The 12 students all plan to have engineering careers. All have taken classes through Project Lead the Way, a national STEM-based (science, technology, engineering, math) program. Students work in groups on Tuesdays and Thursdays during their seminar periods – the district is on block scheduling – and then meet every Saturday morning from 8:30 a.m. until noon. They are not receiving class credit for the project.
Kelly Parker, who teaches two classes, Principles of Engineering, and Intro to Engineering and Design, said the adults facilitate and offer guidance, but the project is student led.
“They’re learning about design,” she said. “They’re learning about project management, and it’s their idea, and because of that, we’re able to add in that instructional piece, and they don’t even realize that they’re learning. … They have become their own advocates, which is really all I could hope for my students.”
Mechanical engineering skills are only part of the project. To manage the work flow, they’re practicing project management skills such as using Gannt charts, which are work timelines that help teams stay on schedule. The charts are important because students don’t all work on the project on the same day, so they must communicate. Students created a business plan so they could market the project to the community. They approached community partners with help and guidance from Parker and Tye Killingsworth, who teaches Digital Electronics along with Engineering Design and Development. Crain Hyundai of Bentonville promised to give the students a future trade-in it couldn’t sell and then soon delivered the Malibu. Keith Brown, owner of Brown’s Collision Center across the street from the high school, let the students work on the car at his shop and also provides expertise.
To raise money for the conversion, the students met with Tom Douglas, director of Wal-Mart’s Lab 415-C, which provides grants for innovative technologies. It gave them $9,000. Douglas said that although Killingsworth was present, the students performed the entire presentation and then provided him a one-pager that he could take to his leadership team.
“The fact that they came fully prepared – business plan, this is what our end goal is – showed me that they really cared and were passionate about what they were doing, and that provided us an avenue to be able to say, ‘Hey these guys are really entrepreneurs, and we want to encourage entrepreneurship at every point,’” he said.
Douglas said his Lab 415-C’s role is to research technology that can help Wal-Mart beat its competition. Wal-Mart won’t be selling electric cars, but that’s not the point.
“What’s important is to understand how energy and sustainability work,” he said, “and to encourage people to be involved in STEM, and to understand what the results of those kind of tests and what that kind of experimentation can be. … Hopefully what we get out of it is a bunch of encouraged students that move on into STEM and eventually can come back and work for Wal-Mart and do what I do.”
The students are aware that they’re learning important skills that will serve them well after graduation.
“It’s one thing to say we’re going to come in here, and we’re going to convert the car, but it took months of preparation beforehand, talking to people and reaching out to the community to get support before we could even get the car in here to start tearing it apart and converting it, so it’s been a learning experience,” said senior Kyle Watson.
Students are also getting help from Jeff Amerine, the founding principal of Startup Junkie Consulting, which offers consulting services for entrepreneurial ventures. He’s helping them through the process as if they’re running a startup company. Amerine has answered the students’ questions while peppering them with questions of his own, such as whether car conversions could be a viable business venture.
Amerine said Startup Junkie had 900 engagements last year with entrepreneurs of all ages. He sees plenty of potential in today’s students. “The young people are really interested in doing their own thing,” he said. “It’s like anything else – it’s not all of them. But there’s a lot of them that view their reality as being one where they’ve got to be kind of the master of their own career, and entrepreneurship is a means to that end.”
Killingsworth said the students are improving at their people-oriented “soft skills.” They ask teachers to proofread emails and practice phone calls before they make them.
“Kelly and I from the beginning said we’re going to let the kids handle this,” he said. “It’s going to be their thing. And if they fail, then they’re all right. We’ll try to dust them off and put them on the right path to being successful. But failure is never a bad thing as far as this stuff goes.”
On the day Report Card paid its visit Feb. 9, seniors Watson and Tyler Scifres and junior Steven Douglass worked on the car in the shop. The gas tank was removed thanks to Brown, the shop’s owner, who did much of the work because of the task’s inherent dangers. The project is a perfect one for Watson, who hopes to be a mechanical engineer designing a Chevrolet truck powered by alternative energy. Scifres is already working at Sand Creek Engineering, a local electrical engineering firm. He works on cars at home in his free time. Douglass wants to manage his own aerospace engineering firm – an entrepreneurial interest he said has been encouraged by this effort.
The students naturally have idealistic motivations for taking on the project. They want to help develop a sustainable, renewable resource. They also hope to “establish kind of a legacy” for future students, said Watson. According to Douglass, “The thing that I really enjoy about it is knowing that we are changing our community – you know, just something as simple as taking any car and converting it to electric and showing our community that it’s possible. And also something I get from this is that young engineers in the school district are capable of doing things bigger than just something in the classroom. We are learning in the classroom, and we are applying our skills outside the classroom to make big changes in our community and just all around town and how people view us.”
The students are on a bit of a tight schedule. As of February, they still had a lot of work left to do. Completing it on time is a goal but not an obsession. If they miss the deadline, they intend to finish the car regardless. If it’s not done by April, then they’ll keep working on it. There’s always next year.
“By us taking on this challenge, we kind of signed an agreement saying, ‘We’re going to do this for the community. We’re going to do this for the school. We’re going to do this for the engineers in our school,” Douglass said. “So we’re going to finish it regardless of if we meet that deadline or not.”