Students Build & Race Fuel Cell Cars at Virginia Tech Engineering Summer Camp

As the doors to Goodwin Hall swung open, 60 rising seventh and eighth grade students stood in awe as a 14,000-pound Rolls Royce Trent 1000 jet engine hung from the atrium.   For most of the students, this was their first time on Virginia Tech’s campus – some even traveling more than three hours by bus to be there – all to experience the 2023 Virginia Tech Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity Imagination Summer Camp.

SAE’s A World In Motion® (AWIM®) Fuel Cell Challenge was facilitated by Nicole Akers, Assistant Director of Research at the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, along with Jennifer Earley, Amanda Parsons, and two graduate students in biomedical engineering focusing on cancer research and head injuries. During the week long summer camp, AWIM was one of the many hands-on STEM experiences—giving students the chance to explore alternative power sources as they designed and built toy cars.

Students were split up into four groups of 15 and encouraged to rotate throughout the week. The campers got to know each other and their abilities as they built their cars. Throughout the week, the students were incredibly energetic and curious about their designs. One student even found a way to lend a hand to a group that needed a little extra help. As he worked with them, he would explain some of the science behind what they were doing in a supportive, collaborative way.

As the graduate students assisted the campers, they also opened the door to career paths in STEM for them. “I didn’t know engineers could work in cancer research. I thought you had to be a doctor,” one student said. This led to a discussion about different roles in engineering and engineers coming together to work on different kinds of projects. The graduate students talked about their lives and what led them to engineering—forming mentorship relationships with the campers. By the end of the first day of camp, Akers overheard students exclaiming “I want to be an engineer!” and asking the graduate students about their classes.

At the end of the week, the students raced their fuel cell cars at the bottom floor of Goodwin Hall and measured how far each car traveled. Students participated in some fun and friendly competitions to see whose car would go the farthest and fastest. On the last day, they came together and created a ‘team car’ which was decorated like a turkey in the spirit of the Virginia Tech Hokies mascot, and gifted it to Akers.

The winning car traveled a whopping four laps around the expansive ground floor of Goodwin Hall. The car traveled so far, in fact, that the student who made it had to leave for his next activity. Akers promised to keep track of how many laps the car made to report back to him when he returned. When she saw him from the other end of the hallway she shouted, “4 times!” The student immediately started jumping up and down in excitement.

Akers encouraged all of the campers to come back next year. She still has all of their customized fuel cells sitting on top of a filing cabinet in her office.

“The experience was very special to me. The Fuel Cell races were the coolest thing I’ve done in such a long time. I got a lot more pumped up than I thought I would.” Akers exclaimed.

Torc Robotics’ generous support through ‘Torc Loves Community’ made this experience possible. The program’s remarkable success has paved the way for ongoing collaboration between the SAE Foundation and Virginia Tech University, fostering future STEM programming as coalition partnerships expand.

Participation in hands-on STEM experiences, such as the Fuel Cell Challenge, has the power to change perceptions of future study and career options. By discovering and nurturing interests in science, students can unlock diverse career paths and find relevance in their exploration of the field.

If you’re interested in the SAE Foundation or the A World In Motion® program, learn more about how to get involved.

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