Although the components came from a kit, this was no easy assembly. There was the go-kart frame, motor and batteries, but then, where do the solar panels go? That was left completely up to each team of high school engineers.
For Saturday’s Solar Go-Kart Challenge at Florida Gulf Coast University, every team chose to put at least one panel on top of the car. The two fastest solar vehicles also had panels elsewhere: in front, in back, even pulled along on a trailer.
“We supplied the same equipment to all the teams,” said FGCU Provost Ronald Toll, who served as master of ceremonies for the event. “It’s the ingenuity of how they put it together and driver skill.”
He led the procession of solar go-karts to their starting position on the FGCU loop, riding an electric bike and wearing his vintage 1960s Nomex racing suit.
“If you run over me, any chance of a scholarship at FGCU totally evaporates,” he joked. “Be safe. Be Fast. And, go Eagles!”
Vehicular traffic was reduced to one lane as the solar race began. In staggered waves, each team sent its go-kart off with a push start. From there, it was up all up to solar power.
Several teams recorded top speeds around 30 miles per hour — some even lapped the slow pokes. Estero’s go-kart broke down on the first lap but was able to find new life for the relay race, thanks to a little help from Renewable Energy Engineer Dustin Chisum. It was still the last car to coast its way to the finish for the relay, but it beat out two other go-karts, which couldn’t make four laps.
Estero’s car sported a unique, nonmetal front bumper designed to be lightweight and aerodynamic. The team has been working on their car since the first day of school.
“It challenges us to think,” said Engineering Club member Daniel Ek. “We don’t end up looking like everybody else.
North Fort Myers took first in the speed challenge, zipping around the two-mile loop twice in 7.31 minutes.
“Our structure is not just aerodynamic, it also allows us to go very fast for a very long period of time,” explained senior Joseph Salerno.
LaBelle was a close second at 7.45 minutes and was the only design to incorporate a trailer.
“It goes faster, and it’s lighter,” explained driver Joann Ramos.
While Naples took first place for endurance in the Relay Challenge, it was South Fort Myers, which claimed the Overall Solar Go-Kart Award, placing third in the speed challenge, second in the relay race and first for a presentation of their vehicle and knowledge of solar energy.
Not bad, considering their car was wrecked and solar panels demolished a few weeks ago.
“We crashed it about three weeks ago, and then we rebuilt it,” said team mentor Zachary Hayward, noting the steep cost of new solar panels covered by the Engineering Club.
Winning the overall title redeemed South Fort Myers, after the team experienced equipment failure during last year’s Solar Go-Kart Challenge.
Of the 10 teams entered in Saturday’s races, half of them reworked go-karts from last year’s solar challenge. FGCU gave out seven more kits this year- at a cost of about $3,000 each- for go-karts, solar panels, motors and controllers, said Dr. Joe Simmons, chair of the Renewable Energy Institute at FGCU.
“The intent of the whole thing is to get students to learn about solar energy and interest them in all its possibilities,” he explained.
Kits went as far as Key West, although that team had a schedule conflict for Saturday’s race. Next year’s race should be even bigger, with teams planning to come from Idaho, Simmons added.
“This is something we’ve been working on a couple years, and we really hope this will expand into more teams and a larger area where they come from,” Toll said, adding he hopes to move the event to a dedicated racetrack.
FGCU has a 15-acre solar field that produces about 85 percent of the energy needed to supply its Engineering and Business School buildings and science lab. Solar energy reduces the university’s overall reliance on electricity by about 18 percent.
“The solar industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States and is expected to add 250,000 jobs in the next year,” Simmons noted. “We want to have our share of participation in this growth in Florida.”
FGCU’s solar challenge didn’t involve just high school students. It extended down to elementary and middle school, with solar car races for their smaller-scale vehicles.
The FGCU Solar Challenge was the final stop for the Southwest Florida STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) Tour. Awards were given at all levels for overall performance at five stops along the STEM Tour during the school year, including Edison Ford Winter Estates, the Imaginarium Science Center, Edison Collegiate High School and Algenol Biofuels.
Overall, the STEM Tour included 28 elementary, 33 middle and 19 high school teams, said organizer Glen Beitmen, the “Wild Wizard” of the Edison Ford Winter Estates.
“We hope to start a Collier County STEM Tour next year,” he added.
High School winners:
First Place: Bishop Verot/Team Gold; Second Place: Homeschool/Crazy Amazing Awesome Guys Who Do Cool Stuff; Third Place: Edison Collegiate/The Expendables.
Middle School winners:
First Place: Three Oaks/The Middle Minds; Second Place: Royal Palm Academy/Take Two; Third Place: Lexington/Super Lynx.
Elementary School winners:
First Place: Heights/Team Heights; Second Place: Three Oaks/Sunshine Smarties; Third Place: Cape Elementary/Seahawks.