by Ben Adlin
For hours before and after classes, a group of high school students in Tukwila can be found hunched over laptops and soldering stations, welding and angle grinding, and occasionally driving circles in the parking lot. Their goal: to design and build a solar-powered car capable of defending the group’s back-to-back championship titles this summer at the National Solar Car Challenge in Texas.
The Raisbeck Aviation High School (RAHS) Green Energy Team, an extracurricular club, has already earned itself something of a following. In 2019, the first year the team competed in the event, it left the competition in the dust, finishing each section of the multiday race in the lead. In 2021, after a year off due to the pandemic, Raisbeck came back in winning fashion, again taking top honors in the competition’s advanced division.
The race is no Soap Box Derby. The National Solar Car Challenge is a STEM-focused event for high school students sponsored by Texas Instruments, Dell Computers, Lockheed Martin, and other giants in the energy and tech industries. This July, dozens of teams from around the U.S. (as well as from Spain and Uzbekistan) are set to gather at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth for the weeklong competition.
The competition tests students’ ability to build a car that both efficiently gathers and expends solar energy. The race is held on the speedway’s closed course and divided across four separate days, with teams allowed only limited windows of time to charge their vehicles’ batteries under the sun.
This year, the RAHS Green Energy Team’s vehicle is a gleaming catamaran of a thing, covered topside with a grid of photovoltaic cells. Electric hub motors power the wheels, which are hidden in an aerodynamic hull, and a bubble windshield gives the solo driver a low-slung view of the road.
“We design the car to be super-efficient, and when you’re in the car, you really feel it,” explained Timothy Jou, a sophomore at Raisbeck who works on the car’s telemetry and race strategy. Jou said the vehicle takes a little time to get up to speed — it tops out at just over 50 mph — but then you can ease off the accelerator and just go.
The RAHS Green Energy Team’s solar car project powered up in 2018, after club members who were working with wind turbines wanted to take on a bigger challenge. Though the team is hoping for a championship three-peat this summer — “A big trophy’s nice,” Jou admits — winning is secondary to the educational, leadership, and career opportunities the solar car project presents. Graduates of the Raisbeck program have gone on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California, while other alumni now work at Tesla and Mercedes-Benz.
Students who join the team with little hands-on experience or background in STEM quickly pick up skills such as computer-aided design, programming, soldering, welding, and circuitry. In terms of actually driving the solar car, any student with a license is encouraged to take the wheel.
“We want to expose members to all parts of the team, so it’s not just you specialize in one thing,” said the team’s captain, junior Alexis Lee. “We want you to know, conceptually … what’s going on in every part of the team.”
When Lee joined the RAHS Green Energy Team, “I didn’t know the difference between a flathead and a Phillips screwdriver,” she said. “Now, soldering is one of my pride-and-joy skills.”
“This club has turned my world upside down,” Lee added, noting that she came to Raisbeck wanting to be an astronaut and has since discovered a passion for engineering. “I realized, as a girl in STEM, it’s really possible I could do it. Like, there’s a lot of opportunity,” she said.
In addition to designing and building the car from the ground up, the team also runs a savvy communications and fundraising arm that provides regular community updates through its blog, social media (Twitter and Instagram), and YouTube channel. Maya Peña, who leads the team’s fundraising and outreach efforts, says she’s helped raise more than $200,000 in cash donations from individuals, grants, and corporate sponsorships. That’s in addition to in-kind donations of equipment from local businesses and organizations.
Peña is a Running Start student and senior at Roosevelt High School who joined the RAHS Green Energy Team after learning about it through her brother, a former Raisbeck student who has since graduated and is taking a year off from school to work on electrical engineering at Tesla.
“I’ve always been interested in sciences, but I go to my local high school, Roosevelt, so I didn’t have as many opportunities to get involved there,” Peña said.
RAHS is a public high school in the Highline School District, but it’s unlike most other schools. It’s an aviation- and science-focused high school with lottery-based admissions, something like a magnet school. Although students from across the state are eligible to apply, the lottery means that not all students who want to attend Raisbeck are able to.
A similar school in the Highline District, Maritime High School, opened last September in collaboration with Northwest Maritime Center, Port of Seattle, and the Duwamish River Community Coalition.
Since joining the RAHS Green Energy Team, Peña has not only helped raise thousands of dollars, but also learned to solder, weld, and use digital software to design and model parts. That, in turn, has influenced what she wants to do in college and beyond.
“I think being on the solar car team has helped me narrow in on my interests,” Peña said. “I now kind of see that I want to go specifically more into renewable energy and something in that realm.”
Despite the six-figure budget and heavy machinery involved in the project, virtually every part of it is student-directed. Under the guidance of faculty advisor Scott McComb and mentor Alain Semet, a retired experimental physicist, students are front and center, free to take the lead on most tasks.
In response to an emailed request from the Emerald, for example, team captain Lee replied directly to arrange a Zoom interview with four students and neither of the two adults. Asked whether it was unusual to talk to a reporter unsupervised, Lee said the team’s mentors were “more behind the scenes, because they want us to try something, fail, learn from it, and move on.”
“We do have a lot of support from those people, and they’re very in the loop,” she added. “We want to take this as seriously as possible, because we know that when we get into the professional industry, we’re going to have interviews, we’re going to have conversations. … We’re just trying to build those skills now.”
Semet, the team’s mentor, said in an interview that the students are self-directed and seem to learn most things themselves. “I’m there a lot. Maybe that helps,” he said. “And I’m usually able to answer most of their questions.”
It also helps that Semet has a doctorate in applied plasma physics engineering and is a self-described lifelong tinkerer.
“He has years of expertise that allows him to teach us how to do things,” said Jou. “He teaches the material to us, but then we apply that to build the car. And when we have questions, then we can ask him and he’ll give us advice.”
The students are fond of Semet — Peña notes that a sticker on the solar car pays homage to the “Muscles From Brussels,” a nod to the Belgian — and say he volunteers countless hours of his time. At the same time, they agree that many of the skills they learn come not from Semet, but from other students on the 31-person team.
“Timothy taught us how to code a little bit. Maya taught us how to send out professional emails,” Lee said. “Abi helped with some of the electrical.”
Abigail Jawili, a sophomore, told the Emerald that when she first heard about the RAHS Green Energy Team, “I didn’t honestly believe that they built their own car.” But after a student-led introduction, she was sold.
“I went to the orientation, I saw the actual car, and I thought, ‘This is sick,’” Jawili said. “‘This is really something I want to be a part of.’”
Jawili says she had always enjoyed visits to her dad’s work at Boeing, but the solar car team allowed her to finally get her hands dirty in STEM. “It’s opened up other options for me in the future that I’d be willing to pursue,” she said.
One thing Semet says he’s constantly impressed by is the quality of the students’ presentations. “The way they’re able to speak in public — I was never able to do that the way they do!”
He adds that giving so much freedom to the students requires trust from adults, especially parents. “I’m sure for some it’s very difficult, but they end up trusting them,” he said, “and the students get a lot of self-confidence from being on their own.”
Peña’s mother, Deborah Sigler, has seen two of her children go through the program and called it “mind-blowing.” A former elementary school and substitute teacher who now does education and outreach at the UW Center for Integrated Design, she says she’s never seen students work so hard.
Sigler also remarked positively on the team’s gender balance. Among the team and at Raisbeck itself, she said, “I think there’s a strong awareness of that gender disparity and that tendency to pigeonhole boys into STEM and girls into something else.”
While Sigler acknowledges the distinctiveness of the program — the uniqueness of Semet’s background and mentorship, for example, and the unusual structure of Raisbeck compared with other area schools — she describes the RAHS Green Energy Team’s journey as a bright spot in local education.
“This is what we should be celebrating,” she said. “If we don’t build a civilization or community of ecologically literate students and humans, the survival of our species is not looking so good.”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
📸 Featured Image: Students in Raisbeck Aviation High School’s (RAHS) Green Energy Team set out to test drive their solar-powered car in preparation for national competition. Photos courtesy of the RAHS Green Energy Team.
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!