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May 092008

By Bill Sullivan

Charles Harris is here, there and everywhere. While the rest of the Winston Solar Car Team dotes over “Sun Hunter”, the solar-car-at-speedway-2004-1.jpgeighth such vehicle in the organization’s nearly 20-year history, the captain surveys the scene, making sure everyone is playing his or her proper role.

“Everyone here is motivated. You don’t have to worry about that,” Harris says. “But sometimes kids aren’t working when they could be doing something. We ARE teenagers, after all.”

Not that you would guess as much from the scene at Dallas’ Winston School on this sunny spring afternoon. This is a no-nonsense operation, which isn’t to say it is no fun. Of a total k-12 enrollment of about 230 students, 17 at the high school level participate in the solar car project, devoting afternoons, weekends, and big chunks of their summer to what has become a world-famous program.

Think of it as environmental consciousness training…with a highly satisfying twist. “It’s been the best way to teach kids science and engineering and alternative energy,” says Dr. Lehman Marks, an energetic, outgoing 40-year veteran teacher who founded the project in 1990 and has headed it up ever since. “It’s been a Mecca to draw people in to seeing the application of alternative energy. Once they get into it, they start getting inspired to see what else they can do.”

For the moment, the task at hand here is more focused: The Dell-Winston School Solar Car Challenge is a little more than two months away. In July, up to 22 teams from around the world will descend on Texas Motor Speedway to see who has the best and fastest solar-powered vehicle. It’s a competition Winston School has won twice and has designs on winning again.

Clearly, this is a cause Marks and his team take very, very seriously. On this day, a wiring problem is causing a power shortage, and a half dozen or more team members are running a series of tests, hoping to isolate the issue. Expressions of consternation and concern abound.

Dr. Marks offers hints and suggestions, but stops short of presenting a solution.

“The easiest thing in the world would be for me to give them the answer,” he says a little later. “I’ve built eight cars. I’ve taught thousands of kids how to do this. But that doesn’t teach THEM. It’s the process that’s important, not the car. If I can teach them the process of how to go about solving their problem, they’ve got a skill for life.”

Winston, as you may have gathered, is not your average school, and these are not your average students. These kids, as the school describes it, “learn differently” in an environment tailored to those who have “a verifiable diagnosis of a learning disability, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or both.“

That’s hardly the only thing that makes this particular group exceptional. It doesn’t take a visitor long to notice that the Solar Team members also are very bright, exceptionally polite, and abnormally poised young people. (Even if they ARE teenagers…) When asked about the benefits of being in the program, almost everyone mentions how impressive it will look to a college admissions office.

“When I first went to school here, I saw this, and right away I wanted to be on it,” says junior Ryan Glazer. “It’s very cool, it helps the environment, it looks great on a college application, and you learn a lot of stuff.”

Or, as fellow junior Preston Slaton says, “My primary motivation is that I enjoy science…and it sounds good.”

Apparently, it sounds good to others as well. Since the program began, Marks estimates that Winston has worked with more than 1,000 schools in 20 countries. In all, he says, about 20,000 students and teachers have visited the campus to learn about solar cars and racing. Winston also has provided support for fledgling teams from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Australia.

“We got the idea that if we were going to have anyone to race with us, we were going to have to start teaching high schools how to do this,” he explains.

Current interest in alternative energy sources has shed even more light on the Winston program.

“It’s the right time, with the right kind of vehicle, to bring out awareness of the application,” Marks says. “We want to improve the science, and we want to improve the education of the science and show that alternative energy is a viable thing.”

While maintaining and enhancing Sun Hunter is a year-round endeavor, Winston and its fellow sun-seekers gear their efforts toward competitions held each summer. In even-numbered years, they convene at TMS to match skills on a closed track. In odd-numbered years, they tackle a road race.

In 2007, the course began in Round Rock, Texas (near sponsor Dell’s headquarters) and ended about 50 miles outside New York City. The road race has become so big that the Winston team no longer races, but serves as organizer and host, providing a different sort of growth experience for its members.

So how fast does Sun Hunter go? Weighing less than 500 pounds, the car can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour…but not for very long (about 30 minutes). For optimum energy efficiency, a speed of about 35 mph is ideal.

That makes managing sun power and battery life crucial, both on the road and at the track.

“That’s why they call it the brain sport,” Marks says. “You’ve got to have really good information about what’s coming in from the sun through your batteries, how your batteries are being used. The driver is the least important person on the team, because he can’t make decisions. All the decisions are made by staff looking at data, computing how much you’ve got in there and what you can do.”

Junior David Newton, who will climb behind the wheel at TMS, begs to differ. Politely, of course.

“I figure that’s one of the most fun parts,” he says. “Since I spend so many hours working on the car, it’s nice to be able to drive it.”

While all concerned take the competition seriously, this is by no means a cutthroat event. Two years ago, a visiting team suffered a complete collapse of its braking system. Four other groups eagerly pitched in and got the disabled car back up and running.

“That’s what we call the spirit of solar car racing,” Marks says. “Everybody is trying to help everybody else do something.”

As you might imagine, solar racing is not a cheap thrill: Marks estimates that the team raises about $35,000 per year to support the program. A planned trip to Australia in 2009 calls for a budget of about $150,000.

Team members do much of the heavy lifting there, too, which is where the aforementioned poise and social skills again come into play.

“We’ll go out and make presentations to foundations and corporations and individuals – anybody who will hear us tap dance,” Marks says with a smile. “Each one of these kids puts in 200 hours of community service each year. When I get a crusty CEO asking why he should give me money, I can tell him why.”

So can Charles Harris. The team captain cites all the positives in learning to build something, picking up management skills, operating as a team, and acquiring valuable business training. But after all is said and done, all of this is just pretty cool, too.

“It’s just a neat experience,” he says. “And you learn a whole lot of important things that you can’t learn anywhere else.

“Solar is going to be the next big thing. It’ll be great to know a lot about it.”

While they’re learning, Winston’s teens are helping to spread the word.

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