Wheat Ridge, CO, is the little town in which I do business. It just so happens my high school alma mater is in the same city. At the time I attended, the school was among the top public high schools in the nation. But after I graduated, the school went through a string of years where it struggled with dropouts and poor academic performance. Principal Griff Wirth, who also graduated from Wheat Ridge, was determined to solve that problem. The short version is that he encouraged Chuck Sprague, a teacher with an engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines, to pull the trigger on a passion project that has since become a community passion project.
Starting with 16 students, Sprague announced to the very first Wheat Ridge STEM Engineering Team that they were going to build a car and compete in the Shell Eco-marathon, which challenges student teams across the globe to design, build, test and drive ultra-energy-efficient vehicles. Naturally, the kids asked, “Mr. Sprague, how are we going to build it?” Sprague responded with, “I don’t know. You will have to figure it out.”
The students began in earnest researching what was needed and learning the skills required to build the car. With mission-specific lessons from their math and science teachers, they started to build an extremely lightweight carbon fiber monocoque from scratch. After working during school, nights and weekends to complete the vehicle, it was hauled to Detroit to compete in the Shell Eco-marathon against some of the world’s best students. Then the most improbable thing of all happened — they won.
This was not a team of ringers or straight-A-only students going on to full rides at MIT. In fact, this team is a cross-section of the whole student body from freshman through senior students with different interests, scholastic achievements and socioeconomic backgrounds. Sprague’s program is open to anyone who is willing to work and be an active and positive part of the whole.
This kind of program takes a considerable amount of money that the school district does not provide. It is community driven. The students are the car washers, the marketing department, the AV team developing promo materials and videos, and the fundraisers. To solicit funds, their team goes out and makes pitches to local industries for assistance with parts, tools and high-tech materials — they’ve also been known to procure some necessary funds for pizza money to keep the team running nights and weekends after the work is done.
What is so amazing to me is the actual tasks they perform. Carbon fiber lay-up, 3D design, mold making, welding — basically everything involved in manufacturing a car, including some good, old-fashioned wrench twisting.
When I say CNC mill operator, the first thing that comes to your mind might not be “impressive,” but when you see 15-year-old Ali running her 5-axis mill, that’s the only word that fits. Veteran wrench 17-year-old Ian and lead mentor 17-year-old Jacqueline pass their experience on to younger team members. To make various deadlines, sophomore T.J. Arbuckle shot, edited and produced a promo video in four days for CARS. A subset of the team maintains their Facebook page so the entire community can be part of their builds and competitions. Local industry offers mentorship and support, but outsiders aren’t allowed to actually help. We are strictly advisors.
The team’s success and failure lies entirely in their own hands. In the second year, they developed two cars for the Eco-marathon and got behind schedule. I had the opportunity to visit while working in Detroit and found the team still building their second car in their pit stall. The distractions and timing challenges led to a type of learning the teachers fully support: hard knocks. One car didn’t get finished and the second car got only second place. The following year, the students learned their lesson and made adjustments, winning the competition for a second time.
We are very excited to host the Wheat Ridge STEM Engineering Team at CARS on November 3 in Las Vegas with a lot of help from Advance Professional, TECHNET and CARQUEST Technical Institute. All I know is that if there are more kids like these in the towns in which you live, and I know there are, the future is in good hands. Come see for yourself: See a teaser of their story and make plans to join us for CARS@AAPEX here: www.asa-cars.com.