The group of Randolph College students huddled around the small, jet-shaped car, talking confidently about regenerative braking, 100-miles per gallon gas mileage, and aerodynamic drag. The students were visiting Edison2’s Lynchburg headquarters to meet the experts whose innovative design of the Very Light Car captured the world’s attention and earned a $5 million prize in 2010 from the X Prize Foundation.
Edison2’s Very Light Car, which can get 129 miles per gallon and was the lowest-polluting car in the international X Prize competition, was the inspiration behind Green Engineering Design, a new physics course now offered at Randolph.
Two of Edison2’s prototypes ended up in the final competition for the X Prize. The winning vehicle is now on permanent display in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. The other is located in Lynchburg, and Randolph’s students were able to get a first-hand look at the vehicle and the design process that created what some consider the next generation of fuel-efficient cars.
Peter Sheldon, a Randolph physics professor, first considered the course after Edison2’s founder, Oliver Kuttner, approached John E. Klein, Randolph’s president, about collaborating in some way. “I realized that teaching a class about what he and his group were doing would be a great illustration of what engineers do,” Sheldon said. “I decided to focus on how to engineer a new-generation car, but included how we produce and use energy, and why you would even want a 100-mpg car in the first place.”
Visiting Edison2 was just one part of the course. Students also designed, built, and raced Pinewood Derby cars to study aerodynamics and friction and created solar cars to learn about speed and distance.
The class also toured eco-friendly buildings, built a wind tunnel, participated in the College’s Science Festival, and traveled to the Smithsonian’s American History Museum to learn about transportation, invention, and innovation. Representatives from Edison2 also made two trips to campus to talk to students.
“I think that learning needs to be fun, active, and engaging,” Sheldon said. “There needs to be the opportunity to interact outside of the classroom.”
For Robert Campbell ’13, designing and creating a Pinewood Derby car provided experience in the trial and error that comes with engineering.
“The simple processes that are at work in the Pinewood Derby are equally as important as they are simple,” he said. “These same concepts translate into the real-world design thatgoes into the planning and design of modern vehicles. Sometimes, you have to find out what does not work to eventually see what does work.”
While the course is open to all Randolph students, it is tailored to the pre-engineering majors enrolled in the dual degree engineering program. Under that program, students spend three years at Randolph and two at the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, or Washington University in St. Louis. The end result is a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from Randolph and a bachelor’s or master’s degree from the partner university.
“This is a great opportunity for students since they can get two degrees in five years, and many engineering degrees take five years anyway,” Sheldon said. “There is an advantage to this major over engineering degrees at an engineering school or a liberal arts school because, in our major, a student gets the best of both worlds.”
Sheldon’s personal interest in green engineering also influenced the course.
“It’s necessary to be more environmentally conscious in order to have a sustainable world,” he said. “We all need to do what we can. Good, creative engineering is the answer, and I can help facilitate that in small ways through our physics and engineering program.”
Students taking the course represent a variety of majors in addition to pre-engineering, including physics, environmental studies and science, biology, math, and economics. Many of the students were drawn to the sustainability aspect of the course. “Green engineering is important to me because innovative technology is necessary for progress to continue,” said Eli Shadrach ’14. “Sustainability is the key for maintaining an environmentally safe future.”
Phanwin “Pear” Yokying ’11 found that the course helped her understand why engineering is essential to a thriving economy.
“It provided me a new perspective of how to look at the economy,” the economics major said. “It broadened my mind.”
Ron Mathis, the chief of design for Edison2, said the company enjoys sharing its experiences with students.
“We feel it’s significant for the future of our country and the future of humanity to adopt sustainable practices,” he said. “And it will be engineers and scientists who come up with the solutions the world needs. We are very pleased to be able to encourage this next generation.”