Solar Rollers competition teaches Summit students how to build and race remote-controlled cars
A group of Summit High School students is getting ready to compete in the Solar Rollers competition, which brings together high school teams from across Colorado to build and race solar-powered, remote-controlled cars.
Rick Karden — a Summit High School engineering, architecture, computer science and robotics teacher — said the school has been competing in the program for more than 12 years, and local students have always been leaders in the competition. He said Summit has held the state record for top speed almost every year it has entered the competition.
Students are split into teams, and Karden said Summit has more teams than most schools because he wants all the kids to get as much hands-on interaction as possible. This year, Summit is looking to enter three teams of four students and is working to raise funds for the competition.
“I like to have as many teams as we can afford to run, because then the kids are all learning something and getting hands-on experience,” Karden said.
The entry fee for the competition is $500 per team, and it costs just about the same amount for all the materials to construct a vehicle. Karden started a GoFundMe page titled “SHS Solar Rollers 2022,” which aims to raise $3,000 for the competition, and said the community is typically supportive.
Karden said the biggest aspect of the competition is the hourlong race. It’s expected the cars will get pretty beat up along the way, so the students have to prepare for this by practicing making repairs as quickly as possible. He said the cars go 25-30 mph, and with around 20 schools competing — some with multiple teams — the race can get bumpy.
“There’s a lot of engineering in terms of how do you build a lightweight car that’s going to withstand crashes at 20 mph repeatedly,” Karden said.
The students learn structural engineering to build the car’s chassis; some physics goes into designing an aerodynamic, lightweight car; and wiring and electronics knowledge are needed to wire and solder the solar cells, Karden said. He said they’ve also done more advanced cars, like one made from solar cells so the car can be smaller, lighter and more maneuverable.
Karden said the hands-on element of the competition is amazing, especially seeing how engaged the students are.
“They will stay after school as long as I will,” Karden said. “When we’re building those cars, I’m there until like 8 o’clock at night helping them keep the lab open so they can build their cars. … They’re really finicky, there’s always little problems that have to be solved, and it’s just that process of, ‘If something breaks, how do I fix it? And how do I make sure that it doesn’t break during the race?’”
Solar Rollers is one of the many aspects of Summit High School’s technology club, but junior Cooper Hyland said it’s the club’s bread and butter. The club also participates in the Technology Student Association, as well as a few other technology-related competitions.
“If you go into our Tech Club, we have just tons of Solar Rollers trophies,” Hyland said. “We’re kind of the best team out there.”
Hyland was preparing to compete in Solar Rollers in 2020 before the pandemic canceled the competition, so he’s looking forward to getting into the race this year.
“I’m excited to get out in the field and just meet the other people that are kind of like minded in a sense, because we’re all here, and we all want to do this. We all do this voluntarily,” Hyland said. “You never really know how it’s going to go until you actually field test your car, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”
Hyland wants to be an engineer after finishing school and said the experience he gets from this competition will only give him more experience in the industry he wants to go into.
“If you’re interested in electrical engineering, it can be incredibly useful just to have the skill of knowing how to use the (solar) cells and how much they produce,” Hyland said. “… It’s nice that we can have variety in our tech program, so instead of just doing one thing, there’s a ton of options, and this is one of those routes that our school has a lot of experience (with).”
The competition will be sometime in April, but the exact details have yet to be finalized. Having been away from the competition for some time now due to the pandemic, Karden is looking forward to bringing students back to compete with Solar Rollers.
“It’s really exciting when all the cars are on the track and everybody’s racing,” Karden said. “There’s just something magical that happens, and you just kind of lose track of time, and it’s really, really amazing.”
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