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Hands-on learning sharpens math, science, tech skills

Unlike regular racecars, the ones built and driven by students at a handful of Mississippi schools make almost no noise — and definitely no exhaust fumes.

On July 18, a quartet of the solar-powered vehicles from Mississippi and their competitors from Texas, California, New York, Florida and Missouri passed through Houston, seat of Chickasaw County.

Residents lined the streets around the town square to cheer the hometown car, Sundancer of Houston Vocational-Technical Center, and to welcome the other teams competing in the annual Dell-Winston School Solar Car Challenge. This year’s event, which is much less a race than it is a test of engineering acumen and team effort, ran from Round Rock, Texas, home of sponsor Dell computer headquarters, to Newburgh, N.Y., home of one of the competing teams.

Sundancer is a six-time winner of the national competition. It tied for first at the finish July 24 in Newburgh, with the entry from that city, Newburgh Free Academy. That record is somewhat astounding, considering the solar car program was initiated only eight years ago by Keith Reese, electrical trades instructor at the school located on the grounds of Houston High School.

Reese has long pointed out that there is education going on within the solar program. Students utilize their mathematics, physics and chemistry skills, as well as other areas of learning to race the cars.

Holding up a notepad full of neatly written mathematical calculations, Houston High School chemistry teacher and first-year Sundancer team member Donna Turman explained how Zack Huffman, 16, figured how much fuel was left to complete the Canton-to-Houston leg of the race.

‘Crash course’

“We had a crash course,” she recalls of her advisory conversation with Huffman. “I asked him, ‘Do you remember the factor-label method?’” Turman refers to a mathematical problem-solving method, which she points out can be used to effect solutions in many different arenas. Huffman remembered and came up with his projection.

He calculated the car had enough fuel to run another four hours and 18 minutes, enough to complete the miles left to the finish line of the leg, with a minute to spare. Late Wednesday afternoon during the parade, Turman still had the prophetic target time, “4:18,” written in ink on the palm of her hand.

Sundancer crossed the finish line in mid-afternoon, coming to a stop near its transport trailer a minute later, its batteries depleted. (Solar power, which generates the cars’ electrical power fuel, can be difficult to come by on the Natchez Trace Parkway, where tall trees effectively block much of the sunlight.)

Jason Roberson and Joey Long, co-advisors of Choctaw Central High School’s Sun Warrior team, agree that much of what their Indian students are getting through their experience with the solar car is rooted in mechanical and electrical engineering.

“There is a tremendous amount of physics and math,” says Roberson, who is the Philadelphia-area school’s assistant principal. “We like to see our kids get into that.”

“Several of them have become interested in pursuing computer careers,” relates Long, who is the school’s building trades teacher.

‘Almost like running a business’

The men point out that other efforts of running a solar team offer educational opportunities outside the science realm. Among them are the organizational and leadership training, as well as simple fundraising. “It’s almost like running a business,” says Roberson, who adds that the team gets no funding from the tribe’s casino and resort proceeds.

Learning about other places, from Texas to New York and many places in between, is another part of the education the Choctaw students receive.

“The Choctaw,” explains Roberson, “are fairly reserved people. I have watched these students come out of that during the past four years we’ve been doing this.”

“And some of them,” adds Long, “have never before been farther from home than Meridian or Jackson and most not out of Mississippi.”

Community, corporate backing

According to Jason Smith, building trades teacher at Keys Technology Center at Ocean Springs High School and advisor for the school’s Cane Del Sole solar team, the first-year effort is a chance to help bring back some cohesiveness after Hurricane Katrina wreaked its havoc two years ago. He admits it’s an uphill battle to keep the effort afloat.

“If we could get the backing of the town, we could definitely continue this,” says Smith. “We have no funding. We don’t even have the shoestring.”

Reese says, while the Sundancer team needed no funds to build a car this year — the car is essentially the same as it was for last year’s race, it did cost more than $25,000 to mobilize and support the team. And the team is seeking more than $100,000 to race across Australia (its second effort there) in October. Private, business and corporate donations have historically funded the efforts.

Educators in the participating schools are virtually universal in their support of the learning opportunities inherent in the solar car programs.

“It’s one thing to teach in isolation, where students ask, ‘Why do we have to learn this?’ and something totally different to teach out here, where it’s hands-on,” says Dr. Steve Coker, superintendent of Houston School District.

The other Mississippi team was “Highteck Redneck” of Newton County High School, which finished first in its division, followed by Ocean Springs in second. Choctaw Central’s Sun Warrior placed third, behind Houston and Newburgh, in that division. Complete results and team profiles can be found at http://www.winstonsolar.org.

A blog by the Houston team, complete with photos and a day-to-day record of the race, can be viewed at http://sundancersolarcar.blogspot.com/.

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