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High school program has kids building solar-powered race cars: 'You just know the students are going to go on to do great things'

"I would like to see 1,000 Solar Rollers teams in one school year."

"I would like to see 1,000 Solar Rollers teams in one school year."

Photo Credit: Solar Rollers

Noah Davis planned to settle in rural Australia until the Earth's rising temperature changed his life.

"Huge bushfires started to arrive each summer bringing big clouds of smoke and fear," he told The Cool Down in a recent interview. "I saw the impacts on these communities, and I started thinking, 'What is the point of teaching other subjects when this generation isn't learning how to deal with climate change?'"

Davis went through various ideas for teaching teens what they can do to save the planet. "I was just always jotting ideas into notebooks, looking for something captivating that could scale geographically to reach large numbers of high school students. I made a lot of different solar-powered toys and contraptions," he said.

Then, he hit on the perfect idea, something that could be done in small groups but could scale to a nationwide event — something that could be as iconic as robotics teams.

In 2013, Davis founded Solar Rollers. "We were literally off to the races!" he recalls.

Solar Rollers is an event, organized by Davis' nonprofit, in which teams of high school students use patented kits to design, build, and race remote-controlled cars — all powered by solar panels.

"Solar Rollers gives students a positive, fun, team experience while they get a real feel for how clean energy works," said Davis. "Practically, it's great tech to learn, and it can propel educations and careers — while allowing young people to feel some control over climate change."

It might sound simple to build an RC car from a kit, but Davis' program presents kids with exciting engineering challenges. According to an info packet from Solar Rollers: "Each team of six to 10 students must decide what type of energy system (race car) they will build.

Big and powerful? Small, light, and nimble? Dangerously fast? Slower but energy-efficient?"

To achieve those goals, students design the voltage and capacity of their battery, lay out a solar array, and build a race car to attach it to.

"I am most proud of the achievements, skills, and confidence gained by the students themselves," said Davis. "You see these things first as enthusiasm and excitement at the events, and you just know the students are going to go on to do great things."

According to Davis, he's heard of former Solar Rollers participants racing in the World Solar Challenge, getting into top schools, and accomplishing other incredible things with the clean energy know-how they first applied to their race car designs.

That's important because the world is heating up thanks to heat-trapping air pollution. Energy sources like gasoline and coal are a major source of that pollution, and clean energy like solar is the answer for replacing them.

"I honestly believe that when young people have a true understanding of energy, they will become much more empowered to make the world a better place," said Davis. "Later, they can study these technologies to advance their careers and to further the technologies themselves. Or they can work with their hands in manufacturing to build the arrays and the battery packs and the EVs that consumers need."

"They can become more efficient energy users and wiser consumers. They can even go on to manipulate much larger energy systems to help win the bigger race against climate change," he added.

To propel students closer to that goal, Davis is relaunching the Solar Rollers program after the pandemic made races impossible. 

"I would like to see 1,000 Solar Rollers teams in one school year," said Davis. "That's about 10 times [where Solar Rollers was] before the pandemic. If we can achieve 1,000 teams, the program will hit critical mass, and it will soon run in most of the 35,000 high schools in the U.S."

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