George Lucas Educational Foundation

WHEA Electric Car: Project-Based Learning on Wheels

High school students learn a variety of academic, communication, and teamwork skills when they build and race a car for the Hawaiian Electric Electron Marathon. More to this story.
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WHEA Electric Car: Project-Based Learning on Wheels (Transcript)

Student: Look at the thing roll, baby. Smooth as a baby's bottom.

Narrator: For the past five years, high schools from the islands of Hawaii have designed and built exotic electric vehicles, and raced them in the Electron Marathon. The team from the West Hawaii Explorations Academy on the Big Island, has won the race twice, and was gunning for another title in 2001.

Student: I'm driving it on our test road, and to give you an idea of what it's like, bumpy, it's a little warm, it's like a greenhouse in here.

Narrator: Each team receives a kit with parts like electric motors, chains and sprockets. They have to supply their own batteries and other parts, and can only spend 2,500 dollars to design and build their car.

Quinn: This wheel is mostly made by WHEA students. We didn't make the spokes, the nipples which are the little spoke nuts, or the rim, however, we did make the hub out of billet aluminum rod, and then I assembled-- I put the spokes onto the rim and tightened it all and trued it, so it's all balanced, so it won't wobble.

Narrator: The electric car project is one of five different projects Quinn is involved with at WHEA.

Quinn: I enjoy having a choice in what I do. It's not just work sheets every day, or something like that, it's hands on, and it's fun stuff, and it's good skills to have, also.

Narrator: One of WHEA's secret weapons is Bill McKown, a retired food executive who came up with the idea for the granola bar.

Quinn: Why is it sparking like that?

Bill: The capacitor is filling up.

Narrator: McKown now serves as a mentor on several WHEA projects.

Bill: I got into helping out the students with some projects, and the main one that we do right now, is an electric car project, which sort of fits my background, so it's very enjoyable for me, to be able to give back some of the skills that I have.

Quinn: This isn't really warm, so--

Bill: Yeah, right, but it shouldn't be warm back here.

It's a very enjoyable thing to be of service to other people, and I find it hard to imagine anything else that could be more enjoyable, frankly.

Narrator: In addition to designing and building their cars, each team must design and build a website which accounts for 30 percent of the team's total score. They also have to give an oral presentation of the car building project. Team members must answer one of three questions they've drawn at random.

Student: There's three questions. The first one is, what was the most difficult problem, how was it solved? The second one is, explain how math, science and language arts were integrated, and lastly, what was the good and bad of working together and how did it help or hurt the team?

Announcer: The drivers are psyched, the cars are ready, so let's take a look at the field. Car 911 is Castle High School.

Narrator: The race, which featured 20 entrants, is an energy efficiency competition, rewarding the car that completes the most laps.

Announcer: And Car Number Three, is West Hawaii Explorations Academy. The drivers are ready, the green flag is out, and the race is on. Waialua pulls out immediately and leaves everyone in the dust. Here comes Mid Pac, Car 11, and "Waiakea High School" Waiakea, Car 10, Castle in yellow, then Kahuku, and finally, Kohala. Amazing difference in body design.

Narrator: In the middle of the race, it began to rain, but the weather didn't deter the WHEA car, or the little green machine from Kohala. When the WHEA car pulled into the pits for the mandatory driver change, they discovered they had some brake problems.

Student: Brake pod. No, it's--

Student: Take the outside curve like you taught us, okay? Russell, watch this turn. Go way to the outside.

Announcer: At the 40 minute mark, Sacred Heart has abandoned its body and left it in the pit. They thought their body was rubbing on something and slowing them down.

Narrator: In the end, West Hawaii's sleek red machine fell four laps short of the green bug from Kohala High, but the WHEA team will be back next year on a mission to recapture the cup.

Quinn: I feel that we've learned from our mistakes from last year's race. We're going to work on the car a lot more, do the documentation a lot more, and we're really raring to get first place. I really think we can do it.

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Leigh Iacobucci


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • John Dobovan
  • Lou Trusty


  • Susan Blake


  • Morgan Ho

Additional footage courtesy of KITV4, Honolulu.

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

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great presentation of PBL. Would be also great for intro to PBL.

Paul Juniper's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I am enjoying your videos on project based learning. Is there a way I can view your videos full screen?


SP's picture

Great vid. PBL can be a powerful tool. I think what many people don't realize is that in PBL the point is not just to learn about a certain topic, but also to learn how to work in groups and manage projects. If students don't learn that skill they will get frustrated easily. I bult as a free solution to help students learn PM and give them a networking platform to collaborate.

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