George Lucas Educational Foundation

Race to Knowledge: Putting Project-Based Learning on the Fast Track

At this charter school in Hawaii, students build electric cars from start to finish and, in the process, learn how to practically apply what they learn to everyday life.
By Diane Curtis
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VIDEO: WHEA Electric Car: Project-Based Learning on Wheels

Running Time: 5 min.

The Hawaiian Electric Company's generous cosponsorship of an annual state high school electric-vehicle competition isn't purely altruistic.

"It builds a better workforce for us," says Ralph Dobson, senior technical services engineer at the electric company. "What we're trying to do is get students to understand more about electricity and what it's like to work as a project team." The work doesn't involve "just the fun part" of getting ready for a race, he adds. The students do write-ups of their design, budgets, schedules, and work. "It's just like a real job. The boss gives you so much to spend, and that's all you can spend."

Students from West Hawaii Explorations Academy, Hawaii's first charter public high school, have competed in the race for four years -- first as a school within a larger school in Kona on the Big Island and then as a separate institution headquartered on the grounds of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii. In fact, the students' enthusiasm for the interdisciplinary electric car race and a previous solar-car competition gave WHEA founder Bill Woerner the idea of starting a school devoted to project-based learning.

West Hawaii Explorations Academy student Quinn Keogh works under the guidance of volunteer mentor Bill McKown.

Credit: Edutopia

The Team to Beat

In 2001, WHEA students were returning to the race as the team to beat. The school's team won the state championship in 2000, even with the handicap of making its own parts because of the limited stock in local hardware stores. Students built the frame out of rejected carbon-fiber sailboard masts, cut and welded pedals and T-joints, designed and built the steering system, and lashed aluminum rods together to build the car's canopy.

The 2001 car -- futuristically sleek, snug, and covered with an ironed-on fabric that took seven coats of bright red paint -- was the result of months of work under the guidance of Bill McKown, a retired director of research and development at General Mills and a volunteer mentor at WHEA. Like other teams, WHEA's received a basic kit from the Hawaii Electric Company that included a motor, a controller, a potentiometer, an emergency disconnect switch, a fuse, a contact, gears, a steering kit, and a brake kit.

The students buy their own batteries -- two 12-volt batteries, in WHEA's case -- and put the car together. The work requires a range of academic applications. Students do math equations. They study electricity, aerodynamics, and the effect of weight and strength on car performance. But the student work doesn't stop there. Extensive documentation is required of the design and building process, the business and community contacts, and money raised and spent. Total spending for the car is limited to $2,500. An oral presentation also is required based on questions picked at random, and students create a Web site.

Champions in 2000, the WHEA team finished fourth in 2001.

Credit: Edutopia

Real-World Lessons

Throughout, the young builders are doing what people in the real world do -- bouncing ideas off one another, researching, trying proposals that sound good, failing occasionally, and then coming up with alternatives. Vehicles are judged on design, construction, safety, appearance, aerodynamic design, and use of recycled materials.

McKown says he believes the main benefit -- aside from the fact that students will remember what they're learning because they're using that knowledge in a practical way -- is that it gives them experience in completing a job on time. "A lot of people emerge into adulthood and have never had to complete a multidisciplinary project on time with all the uncertainties of making a device work," says McKown. "Putting things together often requires a type of disciplined thinking that gives instant feedback on whether you can follow through to complete a job in a timely way."

The car that completes the most laps wins. In 2001, that wasn't to be for WHEA's team. The car had some brake problems, and the school came in fourth. But the team vowed to return.

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Rhodna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is called education.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

love this project but would like to hear more about how much time the students spent on it per day or week, how long the project lasted and how it fit into the school day. also, would like to know more specifics about the roles of the students and mentor.

Tiare's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I go to WHEA now, and we work on a project based learning system. Meaning, we choose the projects we are interested in and work on them throughout the school day. Most of the school day (9am-2pm) is spent on project work, and we go to school all five days a week. Most projects last from September to May.

In individual projects, students are split into groups (ex. design, construction, fund raising), and an advisor teacher gives responsibilities for the week to accomplish. Students submit background papers to be accepted onto projects, and are required to submit written work as well as participate actively on the project products.

Field mentors are for the purpose of assisting in whatever problems or questions may arise for the project.

The people on the Electrical car project are the most dedicated and spend most of the school time and beyond working on their project. This year, WHEA is planning to build a solar powered car.

Please visit the school site at

Joseph Osmann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a good example of structure and freedom as a learning model. I teach television production at a community college with a minimum of instructor-centered presentations. Students practice skills and produce projects that demonstrate specified quality levels.
The project content is, within reason, up to the student groups. They use skill-rubrics, production
schedules and progress reports for structural support but since their project is their own creation, the commitment is strong.
I teach one course a semester at a four-year college and notice some resistance to active learning since the students are more used to lectures.
The Ancient Romans said that no one learns very much while sitting down.

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