Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Auto Motive: Teens Build Award-Winning Electric Cars

A Philadelphia career academy fosters a drive to learn.

September 4, 2007

The K-1 Attack is not your father's hybrid car. Burning fuel made from soybeans, boasting gas mileage to die for (55 miles per gallon), and displaying a sporty carbon-fiber body, this vehicle has taken top honors two years in a row in the student division at the Tour de Sol, a competition for environmentally sound cars.

The contest is packed with well-funded university teams that produce ultramodified versions of Honda Insights or Toyota Priuses, but the Attack came from an unlikely source: A team of underfunded students (and their teacher) from an urban high school crafted the car from the ground up.

The award-winning electric-vehicle team from West Philadelphia High School is part of the school's Academy of Applied Automotive and Mechanical Science and is one of the Philadelphia Academies, a nonprofit network of career academies operating within the public school system. Schools within schools, the academies focus on partnerships with the business community and the school district, pairing course content with real-world applications. By the beginning of eighth grade, students in the system may apply for a place at any of the twenty-four academies, which focus on career options ranging from environmental technology to communications to hospitality.

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Students at the automotive academy spend a year trying to build a running car, but they also work on public relations, creating displays and practicing presentations of their work. A small group also travels to the automotive extravaganza, where they regularly make a big impression. In addition to learning skills, the urban teenagers expand their view of the future, discovering, often for the first time, how exciting their job options may be.

"It's a true inner-city high school with all the social ills associated with urban education," says Simon Hauger, the program's academic teacher (he shares teaching responsibilities with two shop instructors) and its administrator. "Many of my students come from extraordinarily challenging social circumstances."

Terrie Gabe, for instance, was seventeen when she dropped out of tenth grade after her mother died. She went to work full time to support herself and her younger brother, and enrolled him in the automotive academy. She'd been out of school for two years when he died. That's when Gabe decided she wanted to go back to high school, and asked to be admitted to the automotive academy -- growing up around her uncles' auto shops, she loved cars. She couldn't afford to stop working, though, so she switched to the night shift, working from 11 p.m. to 5:45 a.m., then coming straight to school for her 7 a.m. class.

During her first go-round in traditional high school, Gabe had skipped school frequently to go to work and had earned Cs and Ds. But she graduated from the academy in 2006 -- having worked forty to forty-five hours a week between classes -- at age twenty-one with straight As and no absences. Gabe went to the Tour de Sol in 2006 as part of the team that handled the K-1's suspension and body modifications. That year, rain began falling unexpectedly, and the team members found themselves hurriedly building a roof for their car to protect the electrical system, "just like a pit crew at NASCAR," Gabe says.

"It was a tremendously fun year -- hands on, challenging," she adds. "I was given the chance to do something I was interested in, working hands on with cars and hands on with teachers and other students. I've never had that experience as part of a team."

Road to Victory

The annual electric-vehicle project began as an after-school program in 1997. Hauger, a math and physics teacher with a background in electrical engineering, was looking for a way to add an active component to the academic curriculum. After winning the student competition with an electric Saturn in 2002, his students returned to Philadelphia fascinated by the potential of hybrid cars. They loved the idea of an environmentally friendly car, but the program hadn't yet explored a cool, fast hybrid. They began playing with the hybrid concept, then won in 2005 with the K-1 Attack and again in 2006 with a modification of the same car.

The program is still primarily conducted after school; team members meet officially one day a week, although as the competition draws closer, students put in longer days and work on weekends. The 140 teenagers in the academy are honor roll students, special-education students, and everything in between. Some have put in the long hours and weekends, while others have helped more tangentially; Hauger takes a core team of ten to twenty students to the competition. The electric-vehicle program didn't start specifically as one geared toward project-based learning, but Hauger soon saw the classroom tie-ins.

"They're figuring out these things because they need to and they're invested," he says. "In real life, we don't just sit down in a cubicle and do math. They need this math. The crux of the project is that they have a product at the end that is theirs."

And because the students are creating a product, Hauger adds, success or failure seems concrete, much less ambiguous than an essay or an exam.

"If the kids replace your brakes, they either work or they don't," he says. "You don't get a C in brakes -- you get an A or an F."

Harvey Wood, who began working on the electric-car team his sophomore year and graduated from the academy in 2002, started an internship with the city as an automotive technician that same year, and he went to work there after he graduated. Even after beginning his full-time job, he came back to help with the K-1 in 2005 and 2006.

"My dad used to work on his car, and I would stand around and watch," he says. "I'd see stuff he wasn't able to do, and I'd think that I'd know how to do that one day. A lot of the stuff you learn in school you don't use, but this is something you're actually going to need. Everything I learned in auto class is everyday."

Automotive Academics

In order to build a vehicle, students rely on engineering and the fundamentals of applied mathematics and physics: To weld a bracket to support the weight of a motor, they need to use the Pythagorean theorem to determine the width of the bracket. They apply electronics theory to know how big a cable needs to be to carry 300 amps.

Throughout the academy's science and math curriculum, the connections to everyday life continue, and all that theory transcends the classroom. When Terrie Gabe talks about taking advanced quantum physics with Hauger, her delivery is fast and emphatic, as if she's telling a very good story.

"It helps to know about inertia if you're talking about brakes," she says. "An object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion. That's what causes the jerk when you push the brakes. Your body is in motion, so it causes a jerk automatically whether your brakes are good, bad, or ugly."

The academy prepares students both for college and the automotive industry, giving them the choice for either path. Nearly 90 percent of students graduating from the system are either in postsecondary education or at work eighteen months after graduation. Compared to the general student body at West Philadelphia, the academy turns out a higher percentage of college-bound students. Still, compared to the handful of students headed for college, about the same amount will begin work as automotive technicians, a choice Hauger sees from a different angle than he did before he came to the school.

"We want them to have choices," Hauger says. "Coming out of engineering, I thought everybody needed to go to college. That was thirteen years ago. My goals have evolved: I have a degree in engineering and a master's in teaching, and now I have my principal's certification. I'm at the top of my pay scale for a teacher, and my top students will come out and make more money than me by age thirty. In college, you can come out with debt and some type of degree that doesn't open up great job opportunities. They come out of here with a job they love."

"The purpose of career academies is not to send those kids off into a small, specific career, but to use that career to teach through the subjects so they are engaged," says Connie Majka, director of public relations, events, and national partnerships for the Philadelphia Academies. That engagement, she adds, takes a very personal angle: Relationships define the program, from community ties to close student-teacher relationships.

"All the students and teachers build a bond," says Gabe, now a technician at Chevrolet and working toward her associate degree at a technical college.

Bright Future

But the network of support reaches far beyond teachers: Students from the University of Pennsylvania's engineering program volunteer time to help the team, and although the Tour de Sol is the primary competition each year, the team also showcases its car at the Philadelphia Auto Show. That event doesn't include a competition, but the students get to be the experts, and they have the opportunity to interact with some of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who wander through the show.

"You create that ideal career-academy situation, having a lot of people involved in kids' lives," Majka says. "That aspect is worth more than any curriculum or award -- just the fact that these kids are interacting with teachers and college students. Each one is just one more person in their lives."

Funded half by corporate and private foundations and half by public sources, the academies are interwoven with the city's business community, relying on businesses for not only funding but also mentoring, speaking, and internships. The Tour de Sol win garnered the electric-car team plenty of local publicity and opened the door to even more relationships. Tony Martino, founder and CEO of Maaco, an automotive-painting company that began in Philadelphia but now has locations throughout the United States and in Canada, heard about the school's win and wanted to visit with the students.

"These people, who had a very low budget, were in a competition against some very high budgets," Martino says. "I was very impressed. They were very hungry for knowledge, and I could see they were really interested in their future. I thought talking about what's out there could open their eyes to the horizons."

Martino came and spoke to students, but, more than talking about automotive technique, he discussed starting a business and making it work, exploring and explaining the ins and outs of entrepreneurship. It's that balance of practicality and possibilities the career academies provide.

In January, after Martino's class visit, the students and their K-1 Attack took a trip to a Maaco facility to repaint the K-1 with the company's high tech paint process. Martino is also trying to start an apprenticeship program with the high school, allowing students the chance to intern with Maaco, launching them on the start of a path to become journeymen, then hopefully salespeople, managers, and owners of their own centers. And it's not just community spirit on the part of Maaco -- for an industry with a labor shortage, the students stand out as a source of skilled labor with proven drive and ability.

"There is a crisis in the industry for good technicians," Martino says. "We're dedicated to the program, and it will hopefully help them, but it will help us and the industry, too."

Ginny Phillips is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Alabama. Her work has been published in American Profile, Platinum, Preservation, Frontier, My Business, and Connect for Kids.

Go to "How to Extend School After Hours and Beyond the Texts."

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  • Career & Technical Education
  • Community Partnerships
  • 9-12 High School

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