A Race Against Time

June 23, 2020 -- In February, TVA mentors found themselves and roughly 25 students from the all-boys public charter school, Chattanooga Preparatory School (CPS) in a literal race against time and COVID-19 while designing and assembling an electric car to race in the Green Spaces Chattanooga Grand Prix.

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The students and Colten Romans, Director of Information Technology and STEM Interventionist for CPS, knew that it would be a close race — as the Chattanooga Grand Prix was in March — but they set out with the help of Connor Nash, Volkswagen Engineer and CPS Volunteer, Alex Sumida, engineer and community volunteer and Armando Rodriguez, TVA NERC Planning Coordinator and CPS Mentor, to complete the project.

The Student Prepsters were responsible for designing and assembling the car while also devising a plan on where to start and how to finish well. They were divided into teams based on talent and interest, focusing on three primary areas, (1) car design elements such as aerodynamics, charging, braking and safety; (2) inventorying more than 500 pieces of material and discussing the design choices of Green Tech; and (3) group presentation on race day.

“My favorite part was seeing the car in the beginning, and then looking at the end result,” said Head Prepster and CPS Student, Colin Richardson. “All of us were so excited about it that students from other activities came to look at what we were doing. I’m so happy that our school and the mentors put their time and effort into giving us the opportunity to build this car.” 

From Pilot to Partnership

In 2017, the Chattanooga-based Green Spaces organization piloted with eight local elementary, middle and high schools for students to construct GreenPower USA electric power race cars. Today, they are in more than 30 local schools and host multiple races.

The CPS project was made possible through the collaboration between CPS, TN Valley Robotics, Green|Spaces of Chattanooga, Volkswagen and TVA. TVA retiree Charley Spencer, with TN Valley Robotics, helped to acquire the electric car kit for the project, while TVA and Volkswagen provided volunteers to support kit delivery, car construction and team coaching.

“From day one, we decided that it was important for this project to be entirely student led,” Romans said. “We taught our students the importance of communication, organization, planning, safety and teamwork by allowing them to make mistakes throughout the process. That being said, we were never far behind with support and guidance.”

According to Romans and Rodriguez, aerodynamics was an often-discussed component of the car’s design, as air resistance or drag would slow the car down. Designing and constructing an electric car with less resistance provides the students with a vehicle that is faster, more stable and extends battery life — all necessary benefits during race time. Based on their research, the students designed and built the aeroshell of the car to ensure maximum downforce and aerodynamics.  

Overcoming Hurdles

Romans said that the student teams functioned beautifully together but faced some challenges that cost them extra time they didn’t have. Missing parts, flooding and conflicting schedules were only a few.

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“Some students weren’t able to consistently show up,” Romans said. “We also had some canceled school days due to heavy rain — we missed an entire week. The worst, though, was the threat of closure due to COVID-19. That haunted us every day, but the students paced themselves and managed to finish the project a day before the race.”  

Unfortunately, Green Spaces had to cancel the March race due to the spread of COVID-19, but the electric car kit will continue to give back to the school through the new Electric Car Club, Mamba 24 Mentality — a name the students chose to pay homage to the late Kobe Bryant — this fall. The Prepsters were also assured that they could participate in the redesign of the car and race.    

“The kids were amazing, and our team learned so much from them,” Rodriguez said. “The Prepsters asked extremely detailed questions that we as coaches hadn’t even thought to explain to them. It was wonderful to see their sixth and seventh-grade minds at work — the gears turning — as they thought about aerodynamics, charging system design and driver safety. The hardest, and most entertaining, choice they had to make was who got to drive the car on race day.  It’s unfortunate they weren’t able to race, but we were extremely proud of their effort.”   

Rodriguez and Kate Thompson, Volunteer and Mentor Coordinator for CPS, also recognized support from other TVA volunteers, Glenn Medley with Customer Planning and John Fitzgerald with Market Optimization.

“Chattanooga Prep is committed to inspiring leadership, creativity, and an ardent desire for learning in our young men,” Thompson said. “To know that our community is behind us in this endeavor is heartwarming. Our TVA mentors like Armando and volunteers like Connor, Glenn and John are real gamechangers in our students’ lives, and we are always looking for more volunteers like them.”