It’s a Tuesday night near the end of the spring semester, a time of the school year when most students are ready for classes to end and for summer to begin. Yet this small, L-shaped room, a room that looks like it originally was designed as a storage closet, is packed with students.
The room a literal hot house. What air there is is circulated by a single fan sitting on the floor a few feet inside the open doorway. But the students — and there are so many that in some places they sit two-deep — don’t seem to mind. Their attention is focused on the laptop and desktop computers lined up side-by-side around the room’s perimeter.
But the ambient temperature isn’t the only thing that qualifies the room as a hot house. There are ideas being planted, germinated and blooming on those computer screens and in the conversations between the students.
And all of this is taking place without a professor anywhere to be seen. You see, this isn’t a classroom, but a room being used by just a part of the EcoCAR 3 team of Arizona State University engineering students who are involved in a four-year competition against teams from 15 other schools in the United States and Canada to plan, devise and implement technology to turn a 2016 Chevrolet Camaro into a car that not only is a blast to drive, but also is environmentally responsible.
Oh, and you read that correctly. The students will be working on a 2016 Camaro, a car that won’t even be revealed — to the students or the public at large — until the middle of next month. Yet the team has been working for nearly a year already, doing market research — why build a car if no one will buy it? — and plotting out the hybrid powertrain technology it plans to use to make the Camaro as clean to drive as it is fun to drive.
As ASU team project manager and senior mechanical engineering major Brian Hennesy explains as he guides a group of PAPA members through the various labs and the team’s garage, the first year of the four-year competition is the initialization stage — research, architecture planning, etc. Year Two involves developing and installing the selected technology into the vehicle and the start of testing. Year Three is for refining the integration. The final year involves getting the vehicle to showroom quality. There are sub-competitions along the way.
There are perhaps 20 students crammed into the work room this night. But there are another 40 or so students, plus three faculty advisors, who comprise the team representing Arizona State’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and College of Technology and Innovation in the competition staged by the U.S. Department of Energy and administered by the Argonne National Laboratory.
While some college engineering departments have been involved from the start, the ASU team is a rookie, the newbie. But it’s already done very well in the preliminary checkpoints being judged along the way in this, because, as the grad student and team communication manager Ashley Yost explained, the engineering effort at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, located on the former Williams Air Force Base, emphasizes innovation and an open-minded approach. It also is a project-based degree program in which engineering students learn to design, build, test and report on their projects, just as they will in the “real world” after graduation.
While the DOE, General Motors and other corporate sponsors fund the effort, the rewards for the students are bragging rights and jobs. Already several ASU team members have been invited to summer internships with sponsoring companies and a few already know they’re going from cap and gown to full-time jobs because of the exposure they’ve already received while working with mentor advisors from the competition’s corporate sponsors.