Finding a place in the sun Race: Woodlawn High School students are gearing up for this weekend's Solar BikeRayce USA, a national competition of solar-powered vehicles.


Whizzing through Woodlawn High School's parking lot at 30 miles per hour, Kenneth Byrd is having the time of his life -- despite the fact that he's piloting a solar-powered vehicle so small that he barely has room to breathe.

As the top driver for Woodlawn's "Road Warrior," Kenneth will be directing the first entry from a Maryland high school in Solar Bike Rayce USA. Kenneth -- as well as a pit crew and cheering section of 21 other Woodlawn students -- leaves today for the 1998 competition in Topeka, Kansas, and will race Sunday.

"It's tough to maneuver, but it's so much fun," said the 16-year-old junior class president who, with backup driver Sarah Vo, took the solar vehicle for its first public test drive yesterday, as hundreds of students cheered.

This weekend's national competition -- which requires teams to drive solar-powered vehicles 100 kilometers, or 62 1/2 miles, within 2 1/2 hours -- marks the end of a busy six months of work for Woodlawn's students and teachers.

Woodlawn decided last fall to build an entry for the Solar BikeRayce after physics teacher Curtis Jones was inspired by Vice President Al Gore's call for high school students to do more complicated science projects.

Not only did they have to design a solar vehicle that met the race's specifications, they also had to raise more than $20,000 to build it and take it to the competition.

Along the way, the four dozen Woodlawn students have worked closely with engineers from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Maryland's Math Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) program and Rockville-based Outback Bicycle Co.

Magnet program

"This is the kind of project that is critical to getting students interested in engineering," said Robert H. Willis, director of MESA, a group dedicated to increasing student interest in science and technology careers. "We need to start students on exciting projects at a younger and younger age."

Building solar vehicles is usually a task left to college engineering students. But because Woodlawn has a research and pre-engineering magnet program, "a solar vehicle seemed like the perfect thing for my students to do," said Jones, the physics teacher.

Solar BikeRayce USA -- a non-profit organization based in Freeman, Mo., that organizes the annual race and finds corporate sponsors to promote high school science education -- lets teams compete in several categories, including those that allow a combination of human pedaling and solar energy.

Woodlawn chose to enter what race organizers call the most technologically challenging "S-class" category, which requires vehicles to be powered only by solar and battery power.

The school began the project using the organization skills common to major manufacturing companies -- drawing up a strategy, design and budget; researching the different components of the car; calling vendors to find the best prices; and then putting it all together.

"The students really got enthused about it and did a terrific job," said Jason Jenkins, an engineer who designs spacecraft power systems at APL. "They really took on a tough task."

Roles and responsibilities

Early in the process, an elaborate management structure was created, assigning students to mechanical, electrical and administration teams.

All students knew their roles and were required to take responsibility for them.

"We pretty much got involved in doing everything," said junior Mark Hall, who was one of two students to head the mechanical team. "About the only thing we couldn't do was the welding, but we designed how those pieces would be put together."

The product of six months of work is a red, three-wheeled vehicle made of an aluminum frame and a fiberglass shell. It is about 7 feet long and 2 feet wide. Two solar panels hang off the back, and two batteries lie beneath the driver's seat.

"It feels like a coffin in there," said Sarah Vo, who stands 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 100 pounds. Kenneth stands a shade under 5 feet and weighs 90 pounds.

"It's so small, and it gets really, really hot," Sarah said.

Even after 18 hours of frantic work over Memorial Day weekend, students yesterday continued making last-minute adjustments -- loosening the steering, checking the brakes, tightening the solar panels.

Scheduling conflict

Woodlawn has run into one piece of bad luck with the competition. Sunday's race conflicts with the school's graduation ceremony, forcing seniors to stay behind at Woodlawn.

"I worked for 13 years on graduating and only one year on this, so it wasn't too hard to pick," said senior Luu Phan, president of Woodlawn's MESA chapter, who will attend Johns Hopkins in the fall.

Despite the missing seniors, the members of the Woodlawn team are confident that their strategy will carry them to victory. The top teams are eligible to compete in international races in Japan, Malaysia and Australia.

In the four previous races, no team in the solar-powered class has finished the 100-kilometer course, said Jenkins, the APL engineer.

All have started quickly but run out of power at the end.

"We've calculated it so we're going to make it all the way through the course," said sophomore Ben Petty, one of two students to head the electrical team. "Others may start out xTC faster, but we're going to keep going and pass them all by the end."

Pub Date: 5/28/98

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