• Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2017 Team Nortern Sarnia

    The ROVER, a prototype vehicle running on gasoline for Team Northern from Northern Collegiate in Sarnia, Ontario, is heading to Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2017. (Photo: Team Northern)

In between homework assignments, one group of Canadian high school students is putting the finishing touches on their custom-built, futuristic-looking vehicle that will soon be racing around a track at the Shell Eco-marathon Americas (SEMA) 2017. Happening in Detroit, Michigan from April 27-30, SEMA brings together students from seven countries across the Americas to see whose vehicle proves the most fuel-efficient.

SEMA is open to both high school and post secondary institutions, however, Team Northern from Sarnia, Ontario's Northern Collegiate is currently the first and only Canadian high school heading to Detroit. The other 19 Canadian teams are all from post secondary schools. Despite this, Team Northern is undaunted.

“I think the coolest thing about this project is that we’re proving that even though we’re younger we don’t have limits,” says Madison Paterson, team manager. “I think it’s a huge motivation for everyone on the team, proving that we’re as good as university students.”

Team Northern is made up of 14 students, ranging from ages 14 to 18. A couple of the members already have some experience under their belt, as this will be the school’s second year competing.

Back in 2015, the school took 200 kids on a field trip down to Detroit for SEMA, which inspired the students to try designing their own vehicle. In 2016, they put together a team and built a car completely from scratch — creating the framework, doing metalwork and putting fiber glass coating around the outside.

“The Canadian teams generally choose to produce prototypes and they’re really good at it,” says Pamela Rosen, general manager for SEMA.

That year, Team Northern earned a score of 149.7 kilometers per litre in the gasoline prototype category. This is especially impressive considering that some teams may not even make a successful run their first time on track.

This time around, the focus is on improving their existing vehicle, called the Rover. To increase its fuel-efficiency, students are working on making their car lighter by rebuilding the chassis, as well as optimizing the fuel injection system.

“It’s a new way of learning by doing,” says Nayi Rincon, who provides guidance for the team as the faculty lead. “You can stand in front of the classroom and teach all these concepts, and it’s kind of interesting for them, but once they see a purpose, like these guys are doing, it’s a lot more inspiring. They enjoy learning so much that I don’t think they even realize they’re learning so much.”

Students learn theory in school, but then its up to them to put in the extra time at home to research ways to apply these concepts. There isn’t a grading scale for building a working vehicle as there is with school projects — it’s basically a pass or fail. Students have to find solutions for the problems in front of them to actually make it work.

“You really see what these kids are made of. At one or two in the morning they’re working hard and it’s not something you see in a normal classroom setting,” says Rincon. “You normally have to try very hard to find creative ways for them to work.  With these guys, they couldn’t stop working until they saw what needed to happen. I’ve been teaching for over 12 years and that’s the first time I’ve seen so much dedication in a group of students.”

From the design stage to execution, students get to practise with a variety of tools they wouldn’t normally use in a classroom. One example is AutoCAD, a computer-aided design and drafting software popular among designers, architects and engineers. Students also get to do hands-on work in their school’s manufacturing shop.

“We’re fortunate enough to have machinery that we would be using in the industry,” says Paterson. “I think that’s really important, because we have a lot of kids basically shaping themselves to go into trades, technology or engineering.”

The team has one student that wants to go into electrical engineering and is working on their electrical schematics, and another who is working with machinery and is hoping to go as machinist into the trades. From last year’s team, Northern Collegiate had three students go on to university for engineering and join up with their respective university SEMA teams. 

“The college team gets a team member who has two or four years’ experience under their belt,” says Rosen. “That’s really interesting because you start seeing the bar being raised by those teams. They’ve been able to achieve so much more because you have somebody who’s been doing this for a number of years.”

The big takeaway for students from SEMA is that complicated projects or objectives can be accomplished with teamwork on a step-by-step basis.  At Northern Collegiate, teachers and students have come together in a cross-curriculum effort that spans everything from physics to design.

“It’s a lot of hard work but we know that as soon as our car hits the track, it’ll be worth it,” says Paterson.