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Helping Students Learn,
Compete in Electric Car Competition


April 23, 2014

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A grant from Birmingham, Ala., Local 136 helped students at Tuscaloosa Career and Technology Center purchase a kit to participate in the Electrathon, a race of student-designed electrical vehicles.

Matt Harlow, an inside journeyman wireman member of Birmingham, Ala., Local 136, learned a lot about the value of on-the-job training during his five years as an apprentice instructor.

For the past two years as a full-time instructor of electricity at the Tuscaloosa Career and Technology Academy,  Harlow, has been looking for hands-on learning opportunities for a whole new group of students.
When Harlow heard that the technical high school had been awarded a grant to encourage students to enter a national competition, Electrathon America where they design, build and race an electric car and are judged on its endurance and energy efficiency, he was hooked. And, the still active local union member knew it wouldn’t take much to convince his local union to lend the project support.

“The Electrathon is a great learning experience, a way to use applied mathematics. Instead of sitting in a classroom, the students put their knowledge to work,” says Harlow, who teamed with engineering instructor Kris Strickland on the project.

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Students first choose among a few basic kits for their cars. Then they make modifications, assemble the car and select batteries to outlast their competition.  Cars and batteries are limited by weight. Those which are lighter must have weight added, says Harlow, “just like a jockey in a handicap race.&rdquo

The goal is not just putting a car together,” says Harlow. “It’s about conserving power. The race isn’t about how fast you can go, but how far,” says Harlow, who made a winning pitch to the JATC to donate $500 to help supplement the initial grant.

In April, the high school’s car ran its first race at Barber Motor Sports Speedway, a popular Indy Car track and celebrated motorcycle museum near Birmingham,  making its way around the nearly two and one-half mile oval. His team’s entry stayed in the middle of the pack of other Alabama entrants, but Harlow and the students were ready for more.

Relishing the enthusiasm of students for learning about green energy and conservation, Harlow decided to take the local’s support to a new level. He approached the union’s executive board and asked for a substantial grant to purchase another car for next year’s race.

The executive board agreed, brought a motion to the floor at a local union meeting and passed a $6,500 appropriation to help the school buy a new car. The vehicle will sport the colors of Local 136. Fox Channel 6 (WBRC) reported on Local 136’s grant.

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“I learned that it is better to brainstorm how to go about doing something instead of executing the first idea that comes to mind. I love working with my hands and this was the perfect project for that,” said
Landon Yerby, an 11th grader who worked as a team leader on the Electrathon, helping fit the fiberglass cockpit onto the frame.

“Building the electric car was an amazing experience and a huge opportunity for me because I want to work in the electrical field when I graduate,” ninth grader Marilyn Dowling said. “I learned many things such as completing a circuit and how to be patient with people. I can’t wait to do it again next year.”

Harlow says he’s hopeful that the experience gained by the student designers will be rewarded, if not by winning on the track, then by helping them in future careers. “We set goals for our first race--run as far as we could, understand gear ratios and goals and learn as much as we could,” says Harlow. “We accomplished those goals.”