Shell, the global energy company, sponsors an annual competition for the most fuel-efficient vehicles. The Shell Eco-marathon attracts high school and college teams, as well as seasoned engineers.
Ricky Lewis, an automotive instructor at James B. Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, has organized teams for his school for the last five years. Lewis, who volunteers his time for the after school program, faces what many would consider insurmountable challenges each year. He has practically no budget, so his team depends on donations and uses salvaged parts to build their vehicles.
Yet, the team has managed to design and build vehicles that earned them top ranking at the competition and to win admiration for what they’ve been able to accomplish.
Looking back, Lewis told NewsOne that his vision was “an overreach, in terms of competing against better resourced teams, some of them with advanced technology capabilities.”
“But what I wanted was an opportunity for my students to develop problem solving skills and to learning how to apply what they they’ve learned in the real world,” he explained. Along the way, his students have developed those skills on their road to success.
Lewis said most of the students at Dudley come from low-income families and seldom climb into the middle-class because they lack exposure and opportunity.
In the program, his students learn how to apply what they’ve learned in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) classes to build the vehicles. Lewis explained that the program opens doors for them to pursue a range of career opportunities, including high-paying jobs in hi-tech manufacturing that go unfilled.
Joanna Zieglar, a 17-year-old senior, has participated in the program for three yeas, and she’s now the team’s leader.
Zieglar, who has an academic focus in mechanical engineering, told NewsOne that she has had a lifelong interest in mechanics. “As a little girl, I was always collecting toy car—not Barbie dolls,” she recalled.
Through the program, she’s learned how to read schematic diagrams, which has been immensely useful at her internship. She’s also learned how to communicate effectively in a team environment—one of the many soft skills that Lewis said his students learn.
The team works up to 10 hours a week, after school and on Saturdays, to design and build their vehicles. Lewis said they’ve built seven urban concept cars over the years. Many of the parts are recycled from junkyards.
The design ideas come from students. Lewis said, unlike many of the classes they take, he doesn’t approach their ideas as right or wrong, but as a starting point to make adjustments and guide them through the problem solving process.
He praised Zieglar for her recent design contribution. She said her idea started with a Google search for aerodynamic cars and aerodynamic animals.
As far as competitions go, Lewis said he cares more about his students getting the hands-on experience and developing problem solving skills than whether the vehicles win first or last place.
In April, the Dudley beat out a number of other teams to place first and third in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas UrbanConcept Alternative fuel category.
But Lewis said he’s most proud of winning the “Perseverance and Team Spirit Award” this year. His team was recognized for helping the team from Troy High School in Michigan. Dudley gave Troy parts and tools, as well as advice.
“I’m not someone who cries easily, but winning this award (Perseverance and Team Spirit) brought tears to my eyes because my students were recognized for help someone else, which is what we emphasize,” the teacher said.
Looking ahead, Lewis is working toward turning the after-school program into one in which the students earn credits. He also envisions the program as a course in high-end manufacturing, which his students could apply in designing things like drones or 3-D printers.
PHOTO CREDIT: Shell Eco-Marathon