PANA — Students at Pana High School don't shy away from tackling complicated, out-of-this-world challenges.
For a decade, industrial technology teacher Steve Bonser's students built a moon buggy for the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge, previously known as the Great Moonbuggy Race. Bonser guides their effort, but the students do the work and solve the problems — it's their project. Pana was the only school in Illinois to compete.
In 2015, his students tried something new, the National SeaPerch Challenge, which is a remote-controlled robotic vehicle that travels in water. The students this year intended to do the moon buggy again, until they heard about the Solar Car Challenge.
“We tried to do both,” said Katelyn Townsend, who will be a sophomore in the fall.
The team qualified for nationals after winning the open class in SeaPerch, and while they were at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, they visited a museum and saw a video about the Solar Car Challenge.
“They got all the way to Australia and raced it in Australia, and we thought that was the coolest thing ever," Katelyn said of the Solar Car Challenge. "Mr. Bonser said wouldn't it be cool if we could do that, and we said yeah, but we could never afford it.”
They returned home to Pana, but when it became clear they had to choose one or the other, the younger students realized the seniors would only have the one chance to build a solar car, and that project won their vote.
The Solar Car Challenge has drawn teams from all over the country this year, but Pana is the only Illinois high school competing. Five students and five adults left for Fort Worth, Texas, on Thursday, with a stop in Arkansas along the way. Their entry will be scrutinized by the judges to ensure their car meets all the stringent regulations, or they could be disqualified even before they begin. The specifications and rules fill up three large binders.
“This has been the greatest, and lots of fun,” Katelyn said. “It's really hard, too.”
“It took them a step further, engineering-wise,” Bonser said.
Thanks to a long list of sponsors, and some in-kind donations, the students were able to build a full-size solar race car. Four solar panels on the roof provide the power, and the rules require it to have all the amenities of a street-legal vehicle, with brake lights and signals.
The seat has to be rigid, so they used a former school desk seat, and the drivers for the race have to be licensed, which keeps Katelyn, for example, from driving it. She has been able to drive it around the school parking lot and the track at the Christian County fairgrounds for testing.
The three drivers for the race will be team captain Lucas Duduit, senior Connor Hildebrand and junior Alex Murray. Their car, dubbed The Phoenix, features original artwork by Pana artist Sarah Lin.
And the story of how they came by one of their sponsors is kismet in action. Bonser was at the Pana Bowl and talking to friends about the project, while a representative from Chicago company Invenergy happened to be there picking up some lunch. He overheard their conversation and offered the team a $1,000 donation. The company develops, builds, owns and operates power generation and energy storage projects in north America and Europe, including wind, solar and natural gas power.
The race will begin July 17 and conclude July 23, with one rest day built in, and will run from Fort Worth to Palmdale, Calif.
“It's going to be intense,” said Connor, who is tall enough that the driver's seat is a tight fit, though the car's roll bars and construction are all engineered for maximum safety.
On the wall of the students' work room at Pana Junior High School are complex drawings of the design, which Diduit said took a great deal of work and research to complete.
While testing the car, the students have scavenged tires from previous projects, saving their expensive racing tires for the race itself. One chase car will lead and two will follow, and drivers can switch places on any schedule, but none of the batteries can be charged or replaced except by the sun.
Win, lose or draw, the students are excited for the trip and to see what The Phoenix will do.
“How many high school students can say they built a car, that runs off of solar power, no less?” Katelyn said.