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‘A chance to really shine’: Perry Hall High students earn honors in electric car competition

07/03/2017

‘A chance to really shine’: Perry Hall High students earn honors in electric car competition

They say good things come in threes, and Robert Catonzaro would have to agree. Since 2015, the Perry Hall High School technology education teacher has led three teams to victory in the annual Washington D.C. Electric Vehicle Grand Prix.

Perry Hall High’s most recent success came in June when Catonzaro and the Green Gator Electric Car Club participated in the 2017 competition. Composed of drivers Keith Johnson and Jervee Vidallion as well as tech crew members Chase Andrews, Grant Nuss, and Makari Thompson, the team finished 42 laps around a quarter-mile track in an hour. In addition to surpassing its 2016 distance of 41 laps, the club tied its 2015 record.

“It’s pretty unbelievable,” Catonzaro said. “There’s a lot of competition. This past year, there were 24 cars total.”

According to Global EEE, sponsor of the Grand Prix, the competition is open to high school students from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C. With only a kit of materials, students must work in teams to assemble, wire, and design battery-powered electric cars for racing.

“It’s not just ‘plug and play,’” Catonzaro said. “The students have to work through the whole schematic. Of course, I teach them and guide them through, but it’s all hands-on for them.”

Months of work leading to one day

To prepare for the race, Catonzaro’s students met during an after-school club. From January to April, they soldered the vehicle’s metal parts, connected its motor to four 12-volt batteries, and painted its exterior, among other tasks. They also planned and participated in practice runs, encountering a few challenges along the way.

“Because it has such a low profile, the only place to test this car is out on the track, where the track team runs,” Catonzaro said. “And, unfortunately because of the rain this year, it really was a struggle to get out there. So we didn’t have as many days to practice.”

Still, the team managed to squeeze in two test days. And, by paying close attention to their vehicle’s accelerometer, a device that measures the car’s voltage and amp hours, they were able to fine-tune their approach before the race.

“It was a big part of their strategy,” Catonzaro said. “The students read the accelerometer and saw how long they could race at a certain speed before they’d have to back off and conserve their energy.”

Though communication, teamwork, and problem-solving were also part of the students’ preparation and practice strategies, Catonzaro said they became even more important on the day of the competition. In addition to completing the responsibilities specific to each of their roles, the students needed to work together to follow the race’s rules and take advantage of its opportunities.

“The drivers have to switch off every 15 minutes, and the batteries can be charged up once during the whole race,” Catonzaro said. “I have a lot of students in the background who work in the pit, charging up the car and helping the drivers in and out. They develop strategies together to be quicker and more efficient.”

As the students collaborated with each other, Catonzaro said they also deepened their understanding of some concepts taught in class. From energy and speed to simple machines, the lessons they learned exposed them to new areas of science and technology.

“When they’re working on the car, they’re working in the fields of engineering and electronics,” Catonzaro said. “Mechanics are involved, too.”

“So winning that award was like ‘I told you!’”

For their part, however, the Green Gators weren’t the only Perry Hall High students expanding their scientific and technological knowhow. Students from the school’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) were, too. Participating in the competition for the first time this year, the SWE team earned the award for best graphics design.

“It was going to win – there’s just no two ways about it,” said William Stephenson, technology education teacher and SWE’s lead sponsor. “When it was pulling up, because of everyone’s reactions to it, you could just tell.”

According to Stephenson, the club partnered with a few local businesses to fund and arrange for professional painting. With Michael Roberts, technology education teacher and the team’s second co-sponsor, Stephenson and the club then took a field trip to watch the process in person.

“We wanted to show the girls that side of things,” Stephenson said. “It was interesting, and the paint came out incredibly well.”

The painters worked from a design created by the students. It featured a bright green alligator head in honor of the school’s mascot as well as the names of the club’s business sponsors. SWE president and rising senior Hailey Fink said the design was inspired in part by her decision to leave Catonzaro’s team last year.

“When I left that team to start SWE, the one thing I said was ‘If there’s one thing I’m going to do right, I’m going to have a way better design than you,’” she said. “So winning that award was like, ‘I told you!’”

Fink’s competitive attitude isn’t a deterrent for the Green Gators, though. In fact, as Catonzaro explains, it’s what electric vehicle clubs and competitions are all about.

“They’re things where kids enjoy what they’re doing, and they work hard,” he said. “They’re a chance to really shine in an area they can succeed in.”

And, “shine,” the Perry Hall High students certainly do, racking up victories in their electric cars one year at a time.

More photos from the event can be found in a BCPS Flickr album.

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