When a Garage Becomes a Classroom
I was introduced to the team behind the Stanford Solar Car Project late one Tuesday night. Far from the bright glass facades of Stanford University’s inner campus, a lone garage stands in the dark. If you visit during certain odd hours, you’ll find groups of undergraduates, huddled and poring over laptop screens lit up with lines of code or crowding around electrical boards overflowing with wiring.
Anna Olson in the driver's seat of the Solar Car during testing in northern Australia.
The students are here of their own accord. There are no faculty members supervising or assigning work, and the only deadlines are those the students have set themselves. What motivates them is not the prospect of higher GPAs, but rather the complete freedom and control over a project so ambitious that it literally drives them across a continent.
Stanford Solar Car Project is a team of about 40 undergraduates who design, build, and race a car in the biannual Bridgestone World Solar Challenge — a nearly 2,000-mile drive across the Australian Outback powered by nothing but the sun. For most of the students, the solar car project is at the heart of their college education, and the race is the culmination.
When I first heard about the team, the focus of the story seemed obvious to me: I expected to write an article that would relay students’ romanticized reports of the race across the Outback, swapping out tires on the side of a windswept Australian highway, pulses flaring as the nearest team encroaches in the blur of a student’s binoculars, all amidst the dusty twilight of the sinking sun. But the reality of the Solar Car Project is far less romantic. Students are inspired by the engineering challenge. Australia is incidental; for them, the real adventure is the car.
Starting from scratch every two years, the Stanford team designs, fundraises for, and constructs their vehicle before taking three months off from school and traveling to Australia. Far from a vacation, while in Australia the team first tests their construction in the Outback and then race it from Darwin on the northern coast to Adelaide on the southern coast over the course of 5 days.
One senior team lead, Anna Olson, has worked on the Solar Car team since she was a freshman. She has spent most of her time at Stanford working on the aeronautical design of the car. But unlike most professional engineers, who work only on a specific part of a much larger project, Olson gets to see the full scope of her work come together.
“You’re not just designing this one part for this obscure project,” Olson tells me. “At the end of the day you’re in Australia, troubleshooting this part that six months ago you were designing. It all comes together.”
The Stanford Solar car at a race track in Australia before the race. The car’s cruising speed during the race is approximatley 65 mph.
This project is possible in part because of the vast resources available to Stanford students, but the team outsources at a bare minimum — something that makes them stand out among 40 other international competitors. While most teams have large corporate sponsors deeply involved in their projects, designing entire swaths of their car and providing professional guidance, the Stanford team is insistently student-run. In fact, the Stanford Solar Car Project has an internal Business Team entirely dedicated to fundraising and securing various donations. Much of the funding, software, hardware, and services come from sponsors completely unrelated to Stanford and secured by the students themselves.
The educational value of such an all-encompassing project is profound, and the students I spoke with did not hesitate to explain that they’ve learned more from Solar Car than from any class. Many students join as freshmen with no engineering experience and emerge two years later as experts in their respective fields.
For Gawan Fiore, another team lead that has worked on the car for the last two years, Solar Car has become much more than an extracurricular activity.
“It’s become the defining part of my experience at Stanford,” he tells me. “I’ve learned more through this project than I could have possibly learned anywhere else, and I love it. It’s so much fun and it’s become part of my identity.”
Gawan Fiore driving 2013 Solar Car during a Stanford Activities Fair. Many undergraduates hear about and join the project at recruitment events like these.
For Olson, the rewards are tangible, and significantly more fulfilling than those provided by a class. One night, after nine months of laboring over designs of the aerodynamic body of the car, it was at last delivered by the manufacturer.
“Seeing these molds come delivered in the bed of a semi-truck, even though you’re still in the heart of the manufacturing process, you’re like, ‘Wow, I designed that.’ That is the first actual part I’ve made as a mechanical engineer and it’s here in a semi-truck. It’s real."
The five days racing in Australia can be exhausting. Maintenance, media, long hours spent in the car, and the struggles of camping in the Outback all make for an exhilarating but draining experience.
Perhaps this kind of passion is only possible with a unique group of capable and motivated individuals. On the other hand, maybe these students were just lucky enough to find a project that actually engaged them and resonated with their interests. The Stanford Solar Car Project might seem like a phenomenon catalyzed by the individuals involved; but isn’t it possible that this level of excitement, this itch for engagement is lying dormant in every student, and all that is missing is the opportunity?
Stanford has not yet won the race, but that was never the point. In 2013, the team finished fourth out of 40, a massive achievement. In 2015 they came in sixth, but they actually performed better, breaking all their previous records and surpassing their own expectations.
“Our goal wasn’t to get first place, second place, third place,” says Gawan. “Our goal was to be 10% better, and we achieved that.”