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Traditional wisdom says that third time should be the charm, but for the Louisiana Tech University (LA Tech) student engineering team, this wasn’t quite the case. In April 2008, a group of student engineers at LA Tech were on their way to their first-ever Shell Eco-marathon. Shell Eco-marathon brings together the brightest science and engineering students in a competition to design and build cars to see who can go the farthest on the least amount of energy.
On their way to Fontana, California, where the 2008 Shell Eco-marathon was to take place, the truck hauling LA Tech’s competition car broke down. Two students were stranded. In 2009, LA Tech’s car suffered a major failure and resulted in a bent frame, again setting the team back. In 2010, their advanced “B’Vetti-B” competition car broke loose from the trailer hauling it. It was smashed.
But in their fourth year, everything changed. LA Tech’s UrbanConcept competition car, codenamed “Roadster,” set a U.S. record of 646 MPG. It propelled the team to first place in the Americas competition. Since then, LA Tech’s team has gone on to win the Design Award twice and set the U.S. record for best energy efficiency in a diesel vehicle (489 MPG).
Behind the sophisticated cars is a team of students dedicated to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The United States is known for its history of innovation and technological leadership, but in recent years, U.S. proficiency in STEM subjects has wavered. Only 16 percent of high school seniors in America are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Events like Shell Eco-Marathon remedy this by allowing students to apply STEM subjects in fascinating, exciting ways.
Seth Anderson, a 23-year-old senior, who grew up on a farm in south Louisiana, is the team’s longest tenured member and has long been interested in STEM. His interest in engineering began when he and his father would refurbish and repurpose their old farm equipment together. Shell Eco-marathon “gives us the opportunity to apply what we’re learning in our classes so it’s extra experience, extra understanding of what you’re doing,” Seth says. “It’s not just solving problems; it’s applying it to everything.”
LA Tech’s success comes from a whole team of talented students though and Hannah Clark, a 20-year-old sophomore, is one of the most prodigious members. Keen on mathematics and science from a young age, Hannah has devoted her schooling to engineering in large part due to Shell Eco-marathon. Being a part of LA Tech’s team helped her realize that engineering can be a hands-on, problem-solving profession. She has been so taken by it that she frequently shares her experience at a nearby vocational school to help other students understand the benefits of an engineering career. You have to “try to come up with more creative and better ways to do things,” Hannah says of the challenges posed by Shell Eco-marathon.
When LA Tech first entered Shell Eco-marathon back in 2008, when the trailer hauling their car broke down, only five students were on the team. Now, with the ninth annual Shell Eco-marathon taking place in Detroit, Michigan, from April 10-12, anywhere from 100 to 150 LA Tech students will be involved.
“We’ve definitely come a long way, and it’s interesting to watch the progression of the students,” says Heath Tims, associate professor of mechanical engineering at LA Tech and the school’s Shell Eco-marathon leader. “They've grown in their abilities, their capabilities.”
“I think most people would consider us a frontrunner. We wanna try to win,” Tims adds. “But for me, I want to create an educational experience that's unparalleled, that's something they don’t get in regular classes.”