BY CHERYL SLAVIN
At the November 13 meeting of the Rockland County Legislature Environmental Committee, a group of Tappan Zee High School students representing the TZHS Solar Club, along with one of their teacher/advisors, gave an impressive and fascinating presentation about their experiences competing in the 2013 Dell Winston Solar Car Challenge.
“We came up with the idea to compete almost two years ago,” explains Jim Keelty, a TZSHS physics and technology teacher who served as one of the club’s main advisors and organizers along with technology teacher, Nick Desantis. “The Solar Car Challenge fit in very well with the emphasis the school district has been placing on the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum, but we really didn’t get going until January 2013 when Jim O’Sullivan, of O’Sullivan’s Tree Service, stepped in as our main sponsor.”
Soon after the funding was in place, the students obtained the shell of an old Volkswagon bug to serve as the frame on which to build their new solar car. And O’Sullivan did more than provide money—he recruited friends from various professions to donate supplies and more importantly offer guidance on such skills as welding, engineering and electronics. Under their tutelage, the students became “more and more confident over time and eventually began to figure things out for themselves,” Keelty noted. The competition requires that the car be entirely designed, built and repaired by student labor.
By early summer the car was ready for the rooftop installation of the solar panels, purchased from Schott Solar. When the car was completed, O’Sullivan also paid for a van and driver to transport it to the starting destination of Fort Worth, Texas, as well as provided his RV for the team to travel in. In all, Keelty estimates, the total cost of the project was around $30,000.
The competition lasted a total of eight days and covered a road trip of over 1400 miles from Forth Worth to Los Angeles, California. Only students (who had drivers’ licenses, of course) were allowed to drive the car, which ran solely on its solar powered battery and topped out at about 20 mph. One of the highlights of the trip both for students and chaperones was the opportunity to see parts of the US they might never have otherwise. Every night they stopped in a different town, and got to meet with and explain their project to people throughout the Southwest. Student Ben Mart, who spoke at the committee meeting, was “amazed at how interested in our car the local townspeople were.”
Ben’s presentation, along with the photos and video of the trip documenting the entire project, clearly demonstrated that this was a once in a lifetime character and confidence-building experience like no other. Many of the Committee members lavished praise upon the students and their teachers, commending them for their hard work and dedication.
Keelty noted that he would love to expand the program to include students from all Rockland high schools, but that he could only do so if he has sufficient funding lined up. Although it was a very rewarding experience, O’Sullivan will not be back as a sponsor, and Keelty, Desantis and the students are currently seeking sponsors so that they can compete again next summer. Those interested in learning more about this program, or who would like to find out about becoming a sponsor, can view the website at www.keelty.net/solar car.