Good news for Solar Rollers, the high school racing league and STEM program out of Colorado that debuted at Maker Faire at this year’s Bay Area event: They’ve been selected as one of the first recipients of Tesla’s $37.5 million investment in K-12 STEM and sustainability education in Nevada.
In this first installment, Solar Rollers gets a $76,000 infusion to help set up high school teams in the Reno-Sparks area. Twelve teams will design, build, and race their own solar-powered radio-controlled cars, culminating in a public trophy race in Reno in May 2019. Solar Rollers was announced as a recipient of the Tesla Nevada K-12 Investment Fund at today’s meeting of the Nevada State Board of Education.
What’s in it for Tesla? A tech-savvy local workforce for their Gigafactory outside Sparks — fresh graduates who’ll walk out of high school with an understanding of electronics generally, and power storage, efficiency, and solar generation specifically.
“Solar Rollers is our way of bringing fun to the study of climate change solutions. The problem is huge and truly scary but studying these energy-related solutions in this way is a hoot!” says Noah Davis, founder of the Solar Rollers program and executive director of its parent nonprofit Energetics Education. “The cars are complete clean energy systems which students can connect with as a team, so they end up learning to care about energy while having a good time together.”
On the track at Maker Faire in San Mateo in May, I was impressed with the program’s high-tech materials kits and online tutorials, the passion of organizers like Davis, and the speed and power of these burly little R/C cars. A hand-soldered array of SunPower photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, TenCate carbon fiber chassis, and high-torque Castle Creations brushless motors give these 1:10-scale cars track speeds higher than 25mph, which means scale speeds over 250mph. These things are crazy fast, fun to drive, and can keep ripping all day on solar power alone — and even longer using onboard battery storage.
Students are encouraged to use CNC and other digital fabrication tools to build their vehicles, and they’re free to innovate to get the most out of the materials they’re given. For example, Davis says, “Most arrays are about 45 watts, but the students design the circuit so it varies widely, from perhaps 22 to 80 watts.”
During the annual race season in May, trophies are awarded for Fastest Lap, Top Speed with Storage, PV-Direct Top Speed, a PV-Direct Circuit Race, and a Main Trophy Race. Additional awards go out for Innovation, Race Repairs, and a 20 Questions academic challenge with a panel of expert judges to test student’s knowledge.
Since the first race in 2013 in Denver, Solar Rollers racing has expanded to Dallas, Dubai, Silicon Valley, and now Reno-Sparks, with New York a top target as well, says Davis, who presented the program at this month’s Formula E Championship race in New York City and returned with “many interested schools and potential sponsors.” He’s hoping to kick off a high-profile Solar Rollers race at the Formula E event in July 2019.
With 35 teams from 18 high schools already vying for a State Championship in Colorado alone, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine Solar Rollers as a coast-to-coast clean energy racing league with national championships similar to the FIRST Robotics model.
If you’re interested in starting a Solar Rollers program in your high school, you can learn more at solarrollers.org.