Solar Cars Power Lessons on Energy Efficiency

May 17, 2013


High school students from across the Roaring Fork Valley have been tinkering with toys at school for the past few months. Don’t worry, it’s educational. It's all part of a lesson on solar power. The students have been designing, building and testing solar-powered remote-controlled cars while learning about energy efficiency and renewable energy.

The students’ efforts head to a race near Boulder this weekend in an event hosted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.


A group of boys are bent low over a table strewn with remote control car parts, tools, and the object of their months of frustration and elation: a remote-controlled car powered only by the sun.

The group of four teenagers work as a team in the crowded Yampah Mountain High School classroom in Glenwood Springs. Their solar car is nearly finished.  Teachers, students and even the local newspaper crowd around to check it out.

The lightweight car on the table is about the size of an oven door, and it kind of looks like one too but, with wheels. A rectangular piece of carbon fiber lays on top of four wheels taken from a store-bought remote controlled car kit. The guts of the car like the battery and motor are underneath it. And, solar cells stretch across the carbon fiber top.


Senior Tim Stephenson is the fabricator on the solar project. He says he races remote controlled cars outside of school so this class was a natural fit.


"I thought that’s a pretty cool idea. I like RC cars, why not strap a solar panel to it. But, I didn’t know we were going to go this in depth!"


Susy Ellison is the science teacher at Yampah. She says most of her classes are hand’s on but the solar car course is unique.

"It’s a different sort of a project. It involves bigger ideas and STEM education, which is science, technology, engineering and math education together with a little bit of an environmental spin, which is one of the newer directions environmental education is heading," she says.

The idea is to use the cars to get students interested in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Noah Davis manages the Solar in the Schools program for Solar Energy International. The program was his idea and he’s been helping the students put the cars together.

"I hate to describe it this way, but it’s kind of a trick to get kids to think about energy efficiency and renewable energy in combination, and it seems to be working. If you billed it as an elective class in energy efficiency, I don’t think you’d get nearly as many takers," he says.

Davis says he got the idea for building and racing cars from a similar activity in technical colleges in France.

The boys’ car will race alongside other solar cars from Colorado Rocky Mountain School and Aspen High School on Saturday as part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Junior Solar Sprint event. In the future, solar cars from high schools across the country are expected to participate.

The solar cars will make an appearance in Aspen later this summer. The students will present their projects at the Aspen Science Festival on August 11th. It's hosted by the Aspen Science Center.